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William Barrett, a native of New York City, is pro¬ 
fessor of philosophy at New York University. He re¬ 
ceived his Ph.D. degree at Columbia and has, ever 
since, been one of the most original voices in American 
philosophy. For several years an editor of Partisan 
Review and now literary critic of The Atlantic , Pro¬ 
fessor Barrett has always sought to bring academic 
philosophy into touch with the concrete realities of 
modem life. He was among the first—and remains the 
best—of that small group of philosophers in this coun¬ 
try who, shortly after the war, introduced European 
existentialism to America. 

A Study in Existential Philosophy 







whose friendship has meant much 

Theology library 


Doubleday & Company, Inc., would like to thank the 
publishers for their kind permission to reprint quota¬ 
tions from the following books: 

A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway. Used by 
permission of the publishers, Charles Scribner’s Sons. 
The Republic of Silence, by Jean-Paul Sartre. Used 
by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc. 
What Is LiteratureP, by Jean-Paul Sartre. Reprinted 
by permission of the publishers, Philosophical Library. 
A Passage to India, by E. M. Forster. Reprinted by 
permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 
New York, and Edward Arnold, Ltd., London. 
Landscaped Tables, Landscapes of the Mind, “Stones 
of Philosophy,” by Jean Dubuffet, preface to an ex¬ 
hibition of paintings by Dubuffet at the Pierre Ma¬ 
tisse Gallery, February 12, 1952. Used by permission 
of the Pierre Matisse Gallery. 

author’s note 

I wish to thank Mr. Andrew Chiappe and Miss Cath¬ 
erine Carver for reading the manuscript and making 
many valuable suggestions for its improvement. 
Irrational Man was originally published by Double¬ 
day & Company, Inc. in 1958. 

Anchor Books edition: 1962 

Copyright © 1958 by William Barrett 
All Rights Reserved 

Printed in the United States of America 



is The Advent of Existentialism 3 

2: The Encounter with Nothingness 23 

3: The Testimony of Modem Art 42 

4: Hebraism and Hellenism 69 

5: Christian Sources 92 

6: The Flight from Laputa 120 


7: Kierkegaard 149 

8: Nietzsche 177 

9: Heidegger 206 

10: Sartre 239 


11: The Place of the Furies 267 


Negation, Finitude, and the Nature 
of Man 283 

Existence and Analytic Philosophers 295 




Chapter One 

The story is told (by Kierkegaard) of the absent-minded 
man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows 
he exists until, one fine morning, he wakes up to find him¬ 
self dead. It is a story that has a special point today, since 
this civilization of ours has at last got its hands on weapons 
with which it could easily bring upon itself the fate of 
Kierkegaard’s hero: we could wake up tomorrow morning 
dead—and without ever having touched the roots of our own 
existence. There is by this time widespread anxiety and 
even panic over the dangers of the atomic age; but the pub¬ 
lic soul-searching and stocktaking rarely, if ever, go to the 
heart of the matter. We do not ask ourselves what the ulti¬ 
mate ideas behind our civilization are that have brought us 
into this danger; we do not search for the human face be¬ 
hind the bewildering array of instruments that man has 
forged; in a word, we do not dare to be philosophical. Un¬ 
easy as we are over the atomic age, on the crucial question 
of existence itself we choose to remain as absent-minded as 
the man in Kierkegaard’s story. One reason we do so lies 
in the curiously remote position to which modem society 
has relegated philosophy, and which philosophers them¬ 
selves have been content to accept. 

If philosophers are really to deal with the problem of hu¬ 
man existence—and no other professional group in society 
is likely to take over the job for them—they might very well 
begin by asking: How does philosophy itself exist at the 



present time? Or, more concretely: How do philosophers 
exist in the modem world? Nothing very high-flown, meta¬ 
physical, or even abstract is intended by this question; and 
our preliminary answer to it is equally concrete and prosy. 
Philosophers today exist in the Academy, as members of 
departments of philosophy in universities, as professional 
teachers of a more or less theoretical subject known as phi¬ 
losophy. This simple observation, baldly factual and almost 
statistical, does not seem to take us very deeply into the 
abstruse problem of existence; but every effort at under¬ 
standing must take off from our actual situation, the point 
at which we stand. “Know thyselfl” is the command Soc¬ 
rates issued to philosophers at the be ginn i n g (or very close 
to it) of all Western philosophy; and contemporary philoso¬ 
phers might start on the journey of self-knowledge by com¬ 
ing to terms with the somewhat grubby and uninspiring 
fact of the social status of philosophy as a profession. It is 
in any case a fact with some interesting ambiguities. 

To profess, according to the dictionary, is to confess or 
declare openly, and therefore publicly; consequently, to 
acknowledge a calling before the world. So the word bears 
originally a religious connotation, as when we speak of a 
profession of faith. But in our present society, with its elabo¬ 
rate subdividing of human functions, a profession is the 
specialized social task—requiring expertness and know-how 
—that one performs for pay: it is a living, one’s livelihood. 
Professional people are lawyers, doctors, dentists, engineers 
—and also professors of philosophy. The profession of the 
philosopher in the modem world is to be a professor of 
philosophy; and the realm of Being which the philosopher 
inhabits as a living individual is no more recondite than a 
comer within the university. 

Not enough has been made of this academic existence 
of the philosopher, though some contemporary Existential¬ 
ists have directed searching comment upon it. The price one 
pays for having a profession is a deformation professioneUe , 
as the French put it—a professional deformation. Doctors 
and engineers tend to see things from the viewpoint of their 
own specialty, and usually show a very marked blind spot 



to whatever falls outside this particular province. The more 
specialized a vision the sharper its focus; but also the more 
nearly total the blind spot toward all things that he on the 
periphery of this focus. As a human being, functioning 
professionally within the Academy, the philosopher can 
hardly be expected to escape his own professional deforma¬ 
tion, especially since it has become a law of modem society 
that man is assimilated more and more completely to his 
social function. And it is just here that a troublesome and 
profound ambiguity resides for the philosopher today. The 
profession of philosophy did not always have the narrow 
and specialized meaning it now has. In ancient Greece it 
had the very opposite: instead of a specialized theoretical 
discipline philosophy there was a concrete way of life, a 
total vision of man and the cosmos in the light of which the 
individual's whole life was to be lived. These earliest phi¬ 
losophers among the Greeks were seers, poets, almost 
shamans—as well as the first thinkers. Mythological and in¬ 
tuitive elements permeate their thinking even where we see 
the first historical efforts toward conceptualization; they 
traffic with the old gods even while in the process of coining 
a new significance for them; and everywhere in the frag¬ 
ments of these pre-Socratic Greeks is the sign of a revelation 
greater than themselves which they are unveiling for the 
rest of mankind. Even in Plato, where the thought has 
already become more differentiated and specialized and 
where the main fines of philosophy as a theoretical disci¬ 
pline are being laid down, the motive of philosophy is very 
different from the cool pursuit of the savant engaged in re¬ 
search. Philosophy is for Plato a passionate way of fife; and 
the imperishable example of Socrates, who lived and died 
for the philosophic fife, was the guiding fine of Plato's 
career for five decades after his master's death. Philosophy 
is the soul's search for salvation, which means for Plato de¬ 
liverance from the suffering and evils of the natural world. 
Even today the motive for an Oriental's taking up the study 
of philosophy is altogether different from that of a Western 
student: for the Oriental the only reason for bothering with 
philosophy is to find release or peace from the torments 



and perplexities of life. Philosophy can never quite divest 
itself of these aboriginal claims. They are part of the past, 
which is never lost, lurking under the veneer of even the 
most sophisticatedly rational of contemporary philosophies; 
and even those philosophers who have altogether forsworn 
the great vision are called upon, particularly by the layman 
who may not be aware of the historical fate of specializa¬ 
tion that has fallen upon philosophy, to give answers to the 
great questions. 

The ancient claims of philosophy are somewhat embar¬ 
rassing to the contemporary philosopher, who has to justify 
his existence within the sober community of professional 
savants and scientists. The modem university is as much an 
expression of the specialization of the age as is the modem 
factory. Moreover, the philosopher knows that everything 
we prize about our modem knowledge, each thing in it that 
represents an immense stride in certainty and power over 
what the past called its knowledge, is the result of special¬ 
ization. Modem science was made possible by the social 
organization of knowledge. The philosopher today is there¬ 
fore pressed, and simply by reason of his objective social 
role in the community, into an imitation of the scientists 
he too seeks to perfect the weapons of his knowledge 
through specialization. Hence the extraordinary preoccupa¬ 
tion with technique among modem philosophers, with logi¬ 
cal and linguistic analysis, syntax and semantics; and in 
general with the refining away of all content for the sake 
of formal subtlety. The movement known as Logical Posi¬ 
tivism, in this country (the atmosphere of humanism is 
probably more dominant in the European universities than 
here in the United States), actually trafficked upon the 
guilt philosophers felt at not being scientists; that is, at not 
being researchers producing reliable knowledge in the mode 
of science. The natural insecurity of philosophers, which in 
any case lies at the core of their whole uncertain enterprise, 
was here aggravated beyond measure by the insistence that 
they transform themselves into scientists. 

Specialization is the price we pay for the advancement 
of knowledge. A price, because the path of specialization 



leads away from the ordinary and concrete acts of under¬ 
standing in terms of which man actually lives his day-to- 
day life. It used to be said (I do not know whether this 
would still hold today) that if a dozen men were to die the 
meaning of Einstein s Theory of Relativity would be lost to 
mankind. No mathematician today can embrace the whole 
of his subject as did the great Gauss little more than a cen¬ 
tury ago. The philosopher who has pursued his own special¬ 
ized path leading away from the urgent and the actual may 
claim that his situation parallels that of the scientist, that 
his own increasing remoteness from life merely demonstrates 
the inexorable law of advancing knowledge. But the cases 
are in fact not parallel; for out of the abstractions that only 
a handful of experts can understand the physicist is able 
to detonate a bomb that alters—and can indeed put an end 
to—the life of ordinary mankind. The philosopher has no 
such explosive effect upon the life of his time. In fact, if 
they were candid, philosophers today would recognize that 
they have less and less influence upon the minds around 
them. To the degree that their existence has become special¬ 
ized and academic, their importance beyond the university 
cloisters has declined. Their disputes have become disputes 
among themselves; and far from gaining the enthusiastic 
support needed for a strong popular movement, they now 
have little contact with whatever general intellectual elite 
still remain here outside the Academy. John Dewey was the 
last American philosopher to have any widespread influence 
on non-academic life in this country. 

Such was the general philosophic situation here when, 
after the Second World War, the news of Existentialism 
arrived. It was news, which is in itself an unusual thing for 
philosophy these days. True, the public interest was not 
altogether directed toward the philosophic matters in ques¬ 
tion. It was news from France, and therefore distinguished 
by the particular color and excitement that French intel¬ 
lectual life is able to generate. French Existentialism was 
a kind of Bohemian ferment in Paris; it had, as a garnish 
for the philosophy, the cult its younger devotees had made 



of night-club hangouts, American jazz, special hairdos and 
style of dress. All this made news for American journalists 
trying to report on the life that had gone on in Paris during 
the war and the German Occupation. Moreover, Existen¬ 
tialism was a literary movement as well, and its leaders— 
Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir—were 
brilliant and engaging writers. Nevertheless, that the Amer¬ 
ican public was curious about the philosophy itself cannot 
altogether be denied. Perhaps the curiosity consisted in 
large part of wanting to know what the name, the big word, 
meant; nothing stirs up popular interest so much as a slo¬ 
gan. But there was also a genuine philosophic curiosity, 
however inchoate, in all this, for here was a movement that 
seemed to convey a message and a meaning to a good many 
people abroad, and Americans wanted to know about it. 
The desire for meaning still slumbers, though submerged, 
beneath the extroversion of American life. 

The philosophic news from France was only a small de¬ 
tail in the history of the postwar years. French Existential¬ 
ism, as a cult, is now as dead as last year s fad. Its leaders, 
to be sure, are still flourishing: Sartre and Simone de 
Beauvoir are still phenomenally productive, though in the 
case of Sartre we feel that he has already made at least 
his penultimate statement* so that now we have his message 
pretty completely; Albert Camus, the most sensitive and 
searching of the trio, long ago split off from the group, but 
has continued his exploration into themes that belonged to 
the original Existentialist preoccupations. As news and ex¬ 
citement, the movement is altogether dead; and yet it has 
left its mark on nearly all the writing and thinking of Eu¬ 
rope of the last ten years. During the grim decade of the 
Cold War no intellectual movement of comparable impor¬ 
tance appeared. Existentialism is the best in the way of a 
new and creative movement that these rather uninspired 
postwar years have been able to turn up. We have to say 
at least this in a spirit of cool critical assessment, even 
when we acknowledge all the frivolous and sensational ele¬ 
ments that got attached to it. 

The important thing, to repeat, was that here was a phi- 


losophy that was able to cross the frontier from the Acad¬ 
emy into the world at large. This should have been a 
welcome sign to professional philosophers that ordinary 
mankind still could hunger and thirst after philosophy if 
what they were given to bite down on was something that 
seemed to have a connection with their lives. Instead, the 
reception given the new movement by philosophers was 
anything but cordial. Existentialism was rejected, often 
without very much scrutiny, as sensationalism or mere “psy¬ 
chologizing,” a literary attitude, postwar despair, nihilism, 
or heaven knows what besides. The very themes of Ex¬ 
istentialism were something of a scandal to the detached 
sobriety of Anglo-American philosophy. Such matters as 
anxiety, death, the conflict between the bogus and the gen¬ 
uine self, the faceless man of the masses, the experience of 
the death of God are scarcely the themes of analytic phi¬ 
losophy. Yet they are themes of life: People do die, people 
do struggle all their lives between the demands of real and 
counterfeit selves, and we do live in an age in which neu¬ 
rotic anxiety has mounted out of all proportion so that even 
minds inclined to believe that all human problems can 
be solved by physical techniques begin to label “mental 
health” as the first of our public problems. The reaction of 
professional philosophers to Existentialism was merely a 
symptom of their imprisonment in the narrowness of their 
own discipline. Never was the professional deformation 
more in evidence. The divorce of mind from life was some¬ 
thing that had happened to philosophers simply in the pur¬ 
suit of their own specialized problems. Since philosophers 
are only a tiny fraction of the general population, the mat¬ 
ter would not be worth laboring were it not that this divorce 
of mind from life happens also to be taking place, cata¬ 
strophically, in modem civilization everywhere. It happens 
too, as we shall see, to be one of the central themes of 
existential philosophy—for which we may in time owe it no 
small debt. 

All of this has to be said even when we do concede a 
certain sensational and youthfully morbid side to French 
Existentialism. The genius of Sartre—and by this time there 



can scarcely be doubt that it is real genius—has an unde¬ 
niably morbid side. But there is no human temperament 
that does not potentially reveal some truth, and Sartre’s 
morbidity has its own unique and revelatory power. It is 
true also that a good deal in French Existentialism was the 
expression of an historical mood—the shambles of defeat 
after the “phony war” and the experience of utter derelic¬ 
tion under the German Occupation. But are moods of this 
kind so unimportant and trifling as to be unworthy of the 
philosopher’s consideration? Would it not in fact be a se¬ 
rious and appropriate task for the philosopher to elaborate 
what is involved in certain basic human moods? We are 
living in an epoch that has produced two world wars, and 
these wars were not merely passing incidents but charac¬ 
terize the age down to its marrow; surely a philosophy that 
has experienced these wars may be said to have some con¬ 
nection with the life of its time. Philosophers who dismissed 
Existentialism as “merely a mood” or “a postwar mood” be¬ 
trayed a curious blindness to the concerns of the human 
spirit, in taking the view that philosophic truth can be 
found only in those areas of experience in which human 
moods are not present. 

Naturally enough, something very deeply American 
came to the surface in this initial response to Existentialism. 
Once again the old drama of America confronting Europe 
was being played out. Existentialism was so definitely a Eu¬ 
ropean expression that its very sombemess went against the 
grain of our native youthfulness and optimism. The new 
philosophy was not a peculiarly French phenomenon, but 
a creation of the western European continent at the mo¬ 
ment in history when all of its horizons—political as well 
as spiritual—were rapidly shrinking. The American has not 
yet assimilated psychologically the disappearance of his 
own geographical frontier, his spiritual horizon is still the 
limitless play of human possibilities, and as yet he has not 
lived through the crucial experience of human finitude. 
(This last is still only an abstract phrase to him.) The ex¬ 
pression of themes like those of Existentialism was bound 


to strike the American as a symptom of despair and defeat, 
and, generally, of the declining vigor of a senescent civiliza¬ 
tion. But America, spiritually speaking, is still tied to Eu¬ 
ropean civilization, even though the political power lines 
now run the other way; and these European expressions 
simply point out the path that America itself will have 
eventually to tread; when it does it will know at last what 
the European is talking about. 

It is necessary thus to emphasize the European—rather 
than the specifically French—origins of Existentialism, since 
in its crucial issues the whole meaning of European civiliza¬ 
tion (of which we in America are still both descendants and 
dependents) is radically put in question. Jean-Paul Sartre 
is not Existentialism—it still seems necessary to make this 
point for American readers; he does not even represent, as 
we shall see later, the deepest impulse of this philosophy. 
Now that French Existentialism as a popular movement 
(once even something of a popular nuisance) is safely dead, 
having left a few new reputations surviving in its wake, we 
can see it much more clearly for what it is—a small branch 
of a very much larger tree. And the roots of this larger tree 
reach down into the remotest depths of the Western tradi¬ 
tion. Even in the portions of the tree more immediately visi¬ 
ble to our contemporary eyes, we have something which is 
the combined product of many European thinkers, some of 
them operating in radically different national traditions. 
Sartre’s immediate sources, for example, are German: Mar - 
tin Heidegger (1889- ) and Karl Jaspers (1883- 

), and for his method the great German phenomenol- 
ogist, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Heidegger and 
Jaspers are, strictly speaking, the creators of existential 
philosophy in this century: they have given it its decisive 
stamp, brought its problems to new and more precise ex¬ 
pression, and in general formed the model around which 
the thinking of all the other Existentialists revolves. Neither 
Heidegger nor Jaspers created their philosophies out of 
whole cloth; the atmosphere of German philosophy during 
the first part of this century had become quickened by the 
search for a new “philosophical anthropology”—a new in- 



terpretation of man-made necessary by the extraordinary 
additions to knowledge in all of the special sciences that 
dealt with man. Here particularly the name of Max Scheler 
(1874-1928), usually not classed as an “existentialist,” 
must be mentioned, for his great sensitivity to this new con¬ 
crete data from psychology and the social sciences, but 
most of all for his penetrating grasp of the fact that modem 
man had become in his very essence problematic. Both 
Scheler and Heidegger owe a great debt to Husserl, yet 
the relation of the latter to Existentialism is extremely para¬ 
doxical. By temperament Husserl was the anti-modernist 
par excellence among modem philosophers; he was a pas¬ 
sionate exponent of classical rationalism, whose single and 
exalted aim was to ground the rationality of man upon a 
more adequate and comprehensive basis than the past had 
achieved. Yet by insisting that the philosopher must cast 
aside preconceptions in attending to the actual concrete 
data of experience, Husserl flung wide the doors of philoso¬ 
phy to the rich existential content that his more radical fol¬ 
lowers were to quarry. In his last writings Husserl’s thought 
even turns slowly and haltingly in the direction of Heideg¬ 
ger’s themes. The great rationalist is dragged slowly to 

But what lifted Heidegger and Jaspers above the level of 
their contemporary philosophic atmosphere and impelled 
them to give a new voice to the intellectual consciousness 
of the age was their decisive relation to two older nine¬ 
teenth-century thinkers: Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) 
and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Jaspers has been 
the more outspoken in acknowledging this filial relation¬ 
ship: the philosopher, he says, who has really experienced 
the thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche can never again 
philosophize in the traditional mode of academic philoso¬ 
phy. Neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche was an academic 
philosopher; Nietzsche, for seven years a professor of Greek 
at Basel in Switzerland, did his most radical philosophizing 
after he had fled from the world of the university and its 
sober community of scholars; Kierkegaard never held an 
academic chair. Neither developed a system; both in fact 


gibed at systematizes and even the possibilities of a philo¬ 
sophic system; and while they proliferated in ideas that 
were far in advance of their time and could be spelled out 
only by the following century, these ideas were not the 
stock themes of academic philosophy. Ideas are not even 
the real subject matter of these philosophers—and this in 
itself is something of a revolution in Western philosophy: 
their central subject is the unique experience of the single 
one, the individual, who chooses to place himself on trial 
before the gravest question of his civilization. For both 
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche this gravest question is Chris¬ 
tianity, though they were driven to opposite positions in 
regard to it Kierkegaard set himself the task of determin¬ 
ing whether Christianity can still be lived or whether a civi¬ 
lization still nominally Christian must finally confess spirit¬ 
ual bankruptcy; and all his ideas were simply sparks thrown 
off in the fiery process of seeking to realize the truth of 
Christ in his own life. Nietzsche begins with the confession 
of bankruptcy: God is dead, says Nietzsche, and European 
man if he were more honest, courageous, and had keener 
eyes for what went on in the depths of his own soul would 
know that this death has taken place there, despite the lip 
service still paid to the old formulae and ideals of religion. 
Nietzsche experimented with his own life to be able to an¬ 
swer the question: What next? What happens to the race 
when at long last it has severed the umbilical cord that 
bound it for millennia to the gods and a transcendent 
world beyond this earthly world? He placed his own life 
on trial in order to experience this death of God to its 
depths. More than thinkers, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche 
were witnesses—witnesses who suffered for their time what 
the time itself would not acknowledge as its own secret 
wound. No concept or system of concepts lies at the center 
of either of their philosophies, but rather the individual hu¬ 
man personality itself struggling for self-realization. No 
wonder both are among the greatest of intuitive psychol¬ 

Though Kierkegaard was a Dane, intellectual Denmark 
in his time was a cultural province of Germany, and his 



thought, nourished almost completely by German sources, 
belongs ultimately within the wider tradition of German 
philosophy. Modem existential philosophy is thus by and 
large a creation of the German genius. It rises out of that 
old strain of the Germanic mind which, since Meister Eck- 
hart at the end of the Middle Ages, has sought to give voice 
to the deepest inwardness of European man. But this voice 
is also a thoroughly modem one and speaks neither with 
the serene mysticism of Eckhart nor with the intellectual 
intoxication and dreaminess of German idealism. Here in¬ 
troversion has come face to face with its other, the concrete 
actualities of life before which the older German philoso¬ 
phy had remained in wool-gathering abstraction; face to 
face with historical crisis; with time, death, and personal 

Yet modem Existentialism is not of exclusively German 
provenance; rather it is a total European creation, perhaps 
the last philosophic legacy of Europe to America or what¬ 
ever other civilization is now on its way to supplant Europe. 
The number of European thinkers of widely varying racial 
and national traditions who have collaborated in the fab¬ 
rication of existential philosophy is much larger than the 
public, still somewhat bedazzled by French Existentialism, 
imagines. The picture of French Existentialism itself is not 
complete without the figure of Gabriel Marcel (1889- 
), Sartre’s extreme opposite and trenchant critic, a de¬ 
vout Catholic whose philosophic sources are not German 
at all, but are surprisingly enough the American idealist 
Josiah Royce and the French intuitionist Henri Bergson. 
According to the record he has left in his Metaphysical 
Journal, Marcel’s existentialism developed out of purely 
personal experience, and perhaps that is its greatest 
significance for us, whatever final value his philosophic for¬ 
mulations may have. The intimacy and concreteness of per¬ 
sonal feeling taught Marcel the incompleteness of all phi¬ 
losophies that deal purely in intellectual abstractions. But 
the door that opened upon this experience was Bergson’s 
doctrine of intuition; and the figure of Henri Bergson 
(1859-1941) cannot really be omitted from any historical 


sketch of modem existential philosophy. Without Bergson 
the whole atmosphere in which Existentialists have philoso¬ 
phized would not have been what it was. He was the first 
to insist on the insufficiency of the abstract intelligence to 
grasp the richness of experience, on the urgent and irreduci¬ 
ble reality of time, and—perhaps in the long run the most 
significant insight of all—on the inner depth of the psychic 
life which cannot be measured by the quantitative methods 
of the physical sciences; and for making all of these points 
the Existentialists stand greatly in his debt. Yet, from the 
existential point of view, there is a curious incompleteness 
about Bergson’s thinking, as if he never came really to grips 
with the central subject, Man, but remained perpetually 
dodging and tacking about on its periphery. Certain prem¬ 
ises of Bergson’s thought—which remain, to be sure, little 
more than premises—are more radical than any the Ex¬ 
istentialists have yet explored. Bergson s reputation except 
in France has greatly fallen off, but he is due for a revival, 
at which time hindsight will enable us to see that his phi¬ 
losophy contains much more than it seemed to, even at the 
height of his fame. 

The Russians (White Russians, of course) have con¬ 
tributed three typical and interesting figures to Existential¬ 
ism: Vladimir Solovev (1853-1900), Leon Shestov (1868- 
1 93 ^)> and Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), of whom only 
the last seems to be known in this country. These men are 
all spiritual children of Dostoevski, and they bring a pe¬ 
culiarly Russian vision to Existentialism: total, extreme, and 
apocalyptic. Solovev, primarily a theologian and religious 
writer, belonged to the first generation that felt the impact 
of Dostoevski as both prophet and novelist, and he develops 
the typically Dostoevsldan position that there can be no 
compromise between the spirit of rationalism and the spirit 
of religion. Both Berdyaev and Shestov were Russian 
SmigrSs, cosmopolitans of the spirit, but nevertheless re¬ 
mained Russian to the core; and their writings, like those 
of the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, can 
show us what the mind of western Europe, the heir of 
classicism and rationalism, looks like to an outsider—partic- 



ularly to a Russian outsider who will be satisfied with no 
philosophic answers that fall short of the total and passion¬ 
ate feelings of his own humanity. 

Modem Spain has contributed two figures to existential 
philosophy, in Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) and 
JosS Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). Unamuno, a poet first 
and last, wrote one of the most moving and genuine philo¬ 
sophic books of the whole movement; his Tragic Sense of 
Life is a work that fulfills, though in an anti-Nietzschean 
sense, Nietzsche’s command to remain true to the earth. 
Unamuno had read Kierkegaard, but his thought is an ex¬ 
pression of his own personal passion and of the Basque 
earth from which he sprang. Ortega, a cooler and more 
cosmopolitan figure, is best known in this country as the 
social critic of The Revolt of the Masses . All the basic prem¬ 
ises of Ortegas thought derive from modem German phi¬ 
losophy: so far as he philosophizes, his mind is Germanic; 
but he was able to translate German philosophy into the 
language of the people, without pedantry and jargon, and 
particularly into the simplicity of an altogether alien lan¬ 
guage, Spanish, so that the translation itself becomes an 
act of creative thought. Ortega loves to hide the profundity 
of his thought behind the simple and casual language of a 
journalist or belletrist. 

On the outer edge of the German tradition moves the 
remarkable figure of Martin Buber (1878- ), a Jew 

whose culture is altogether Germanic but whose thought 
after many peregrinations has succeeded in rediscovering 
and anchoring itself profoundly to its Biblical and Hebraic 
inheritance. Buber is one of the few thinkers who has suc¬ 
ceeded in the desperate modem search for roots, a fact with 
which his work continuously impresses us. The image of 
Biblical man moves like a shadow behind everything he 
writes. His thinking has the narrowness and concrete power, 
often the stubborn obstinacy, of Hebraism. At first glance 
his contribution would seem to be the slenderest of all the 
Existentialists, to be summed up in the title of his most 
moving book, I and Thou . It is as if Buber had sought to 
recast Kierkegaards dictum, “Purity of heart is to will one 


1 7 

thing,” into: Depth of mind is to think one thought. But 
this one thought—that meaning in life happens in the area 
between person and person in that situation of contact 
when one says I to the other s Thou—is worth a lifetime’s 
digging. In any case Buber is a necessary corrective to more 
ambitious systematizes like Heidegger and Sartre. 

Thus we see that Existentialism numbers among its 
most powerful representatives Jews, Catholics, Protestants 
—as well as atheists. Contrary to the first facile journalistic 
reactions, the seriousness of existential thought does not 
arise merely out of the despair of a world from which God 
has departed. Such a generalization was prompted largely 
by the identification of existential philosophy with the 
school of Sartre. It should appear, from the foregoing 
sketch, how tiny a fragment of Exis tentialism the Sartrian 
school really does represent. So far as the central impulses 
of existential thought are concerned, it does not altogether 
matter, at least in one sense, in what religious sect a man 
finally finds his home. Nor is it mere heterogenous lumping- 
together to put Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and atheists un¬ 
der the rubric of one philosophy. This philosophy, as a par¬ 
ticular mode of human thought, is single even though its 
practitioners wind up in different religious camps. What is 
common, and central, to all these philosophers is that the 
meaning of religion, and religious faith, is recast in relation 
to the individual. Each has put religion itself radically in 
question, and it is only to be expected that the faith, or the 
denial of faith, that emerges in their thought should be 
somewhat disconcerting to those who have followed the 
more public and external paths into a church. Unamuno 
seemed always on the verge of excommunication by the 
Spanish bishops; Buber is a prophet with not very much 
honor in his native land of Israel; and Kierkegaard fought 
the last battle of his life against the ordained hierarchy of 
the Danish Church. The atheist sect, on the other hand, 
sniffs the taint of heresy in Heidegger, whose thought, 
which he himself calls in one place a "waiting for god,” 
has been criticized by one American philosopher as open- 



ing the back door to theology. It is evident that anyone 
who has passed through the depths of modem experience 
and strives to place religion in relation to that experience is 
bound to acquire the label of heretic. 

Modem experience—an ambiguous enough term, to be 
sure, and one that will require subsequent definition—is the 
bond among these philosophers. The roster of names we 
have given is hardly complete, but surely sufficient to in¬ 
dicate that Existentialism is not a passing fad or a mere 
philosophic mood of the postwar period but a major move¬ 
ment of human thought that lies directly in the main 
stream of modem history. Over the past hundred years the 
development of philosophy has shown a remarkable en¬ 
largement of content, a progressive orientation toward the 
immediate and qualitative, the existent and the actual—to¬ 
ward “concreteness and adequacy,” to use the words that 
A. N. Whitehead borrowed from William James. Philoso¬ 
phers can no longer attempt, as the British empiricists 
Locke and Hume attempted, to construct human experience 
out of simple ideas and elementary sensations. The psychic 
life of man is not a mosaic of such mental atoms, and phi¬ 
losophers were able to cling to this belief so long only be¬ 
cause they had put their own abstractions in place of 
concrete experience. Thus Whitehead himself, who as a 
Platonist can scarcely be lumped with the Existentialists, 
nevertheless shares in this general existential trend within 
modem philosophy when he describes philosophy itself as 
“the critique of abstractions”—the endless effort to drag the 
balloon of the mind back to the earth of actual experience. 

Of all the non-European philosophers, William James 
probably best deserves to be labeled an Existentialist. In¬ 
deed, at this late date, we may very well wonder whether 
it would not be more accurate to call James an Existentialist 
than a Pragmatist. What remains of American Pragmatism 
today is forced to think of him as the black sheep of 
the movement. Pragmatists nowadays acknowledge James’s 
genius but are embarrassed by his extremes: by the una¬ 
shamedly personal tone of his philosophizing, his willing¬ 
ness to give psychology the final voice over logic where the 


two seem in conflict, and his belief in the revelatory value 
of religious experience. There are pages in James that could 
have been written by Kierkegaard, and the Epilogue to 
Varieties of Religious Experience puts the case for the pri¬ 
macy of personal experience over abstraction as strongly as 
any of the Existentialists has ever done. James’s vitupera¬ 
tion of rationalism is so passionate that latter-day Pragma¬ 
tists see their own residual rationalism of scientific method 
thereby put in question. And it is not merely a matter of 
tone, but of principle, that places James among the Exis¬ 
tentialists: he plumped for a world which contained con¬ 
tingency, discontinuity, and in which the centers of experi¬ 
ence were irreducibly plural and personal, as against a 
"block” universe that could be enclosed in a single rational 

Pragmatism meant something more and different for 
James than it did for Charles Sanders Peirce or John Dewey. 
The contrast between James and Dewey, particularly, sheds 
light on the precise point at which Pragmatism, in the strict 
sense, ends and Existentialism begins. A comparison be¬ 
tween the earlier and the later writings of Dewey is almost 
equally illuminating on the same point. Dewey is moving in 
the general existential direction of modem philosophy with 
his insistence that the modem philosopher must break with 
the whole classical tradition of thought. He sees the "nega¬ 
tive” and destructive side of philosophy (with which Exis¬ 
tentialism has been so heavily taxed by its critics): every 
thinker, Dewey tells us, puts some portion of the stable 
world in danger as soon as he begins to think. The genial 
inspiration that lies behind his whole rather gangling and 
loose-jointed philosophy is the belief that in all depart¬ 
ments of human experience things do not fall from heaven 
but grow up out of the earth. Thinking itself is only the 
halting and fumbling effort of a thoroughly biological crea¬ 
ture to cope with his environment. The image of man as an 
earth-bound and time-bound creature permeates Dewey’s 
writings as it does that of the Existentialists—up to a point. 
Beyond that point he moves in a direction that is the very 
opposite of Existentialism. What Dewey never calls into 



question is the thing he labels Intelligence, which in his last 
writings came to mean simply Scientific Method. Dewey 
places the human person securely within his biological and 
social context, but he never goes past this context into that 
deepest center of the human person where fear and trem¬ 
bling start. Any examination of inner experience—really 
inner experience—would have seemed to Dewey to take the 
philosopher too far away from nature in the direction of the 
theological. We have to remind ourselves here of the pro¬ 
vincial and overtheologized atmosphere of the America in 
which Dewey started his work, and against which he had 
to struggle so hard to establish the validity of a secular in¬ 
telligence. Given Dewey’s emphasis upon the biological and 
sociological contexts as ultimate, however, together with his 
interpretation of human thought as basically an effort to 
transform the environment, we end with the picture of man 
as essentially homo faber, the technological animal. This be¬ 
lief in technique is still a supreme article of the American 
faith. Dewey grew up in a period in which America was 
still wrestling with its frontier, and the mood of his writings 
is unshaken optimism at the expansion of our technical mas¬ 
tery over nature. Ultimately, the difference between Dewey 
and the Existentialists is the difference between America 
and Europe. The philosopher cannot seriously put to him¬ 
self questions that his civilization has not lived. 

That is why we propose to limit the scope of our subject 
to Europe and consider Existentialism as a distinctly Eu¬ 
ropean product of this period: in fact, as the philosophy of 
Europe in this century. In the broadest sense of the term, 
no doubt, all modem thought has been touched by a 
greater existential emphasis than was the philosophy of the 
earlier modem period. This is simply the result of the 
stepped-up secularization of Western civilization, in the 
course of which man has inevitably become more attached 
to the promises of this earth than to the goal of a transcend¬ 
ent realm beyond nature. But while it is important to call 
attention at the outset to this broad sense of die word “exis¬ 
tential,” to carry this meaning through in detail would in¬ 
evitably dilute the specific substance of Existentialism. It is 


Europe that has been in crisis, and it is European thinkers 
who have brought the existential problems to a focal ex¬ 
pression, who have in fact dared to raise the ultimate ques¬ 
tions. The significance of this philosophy is another matter, 
however, and can hardly be confined to its place of o rigin. 
Its significance is for the world and for this epoch of the 

The reader may very well ask why, in view of this 
broader existential trend within modem philosophy, Exis¬ 
tentialism should first have been greeted by professional 
philosophers in this country as an eccentric and sensational 
kind of tempest in a teapot. We should point out that 
Anglo-American philosophy is dominated by an altogether 
different and alien mode of thought—variously called ana¬ 
lytic philosophy. Logical Positivism, or sometimes merely 
“scientific philosophy.” No doubt, Positivism has also good 
claims to being the philosophy of this time: it takes as its 
central fact what is undoubtedly the central fact distin¬ 
guishing our civilization from all others—science; but it goes 
on from this to take science as the ultimate ruler of human 
life, which it never has been and psychologically never can 
be. Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the 
tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically 
“meaningful,” while the whole surrounding area in which 
ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings 
with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the 
“meaningless.” Positivism has simply accepted the frac¬ 
tured being of modem man and erected a philosophy to 
intensify it. Existentialism, whether successfully or not, has 
attempted instead to gather all the elements of human real¬ 
ity into a total picture of man. Positivist man and Existen¬ 
tialist man are no doubt offspring of the same parent epoch, 
but, somewhat as Cain and Abel were, the brothers are di¬ 
vided unalterably by temperament and the initial choice 
they make of their own being. Of course there is on the 
contemporary scene a more powerful claimant to philo¬ 
sophic mastery than either of them: Marxism. Marxist man 
is a creature of technics, a busy and ingenious animal, with 



secular religious faith in History, of which he is the chosen 
collaborator. Like Positivism, Marxism has no philosophical 
categories for the unique facts of human personality, and in 
the natural course of things manages to collectivize this hu¬ 
man personality out of existence (except where a single 
personality attains power, and then his personal paranoia 
plays havoc with the lives of two hundred million people). 
Both Marxism and Positivism are, intellectually speaking, 
relics of the nineteenth-century Enlightenment that have 
not yet come to terms with the shadow side of human life 
as grasped even by some of the nineteenth-century thinkers 
themselves. The Marxist and Positivist picture of man, con¬ 
sequently, is thin and oversimplified. Existential philoso¬ 
phy, as a revolt against such oversimplification, attempts 
to grasp the image of the whole man, even where this in¬ 
volves bringing to consciousness all that is dark and ques¬ 
tionable in his existence. And in just this respect it is a 
much more authentic expression of our own contemporary 

In proof of this we turn now to look at the historical char¬ 
acteristics of the time that has engendered this philosophy. 


Chapter Two 

No age has ever been so self-conscious as ours. At any 
rate, the quantity of journalism the modem age has turned 
out in the process of its own self-analysis already overflows 
our archives and, were it not that most of it is doomed to 
perish, would be a dull burden to hand down to our de¬ 
scendants. The task still goes on, as indeed it must, for the 
last word has not been spoken, and modem man seems even 
further from understanding himself than when he first be¬ 
gan to question his own identity. Of documentation of ex¬ 
ternal facts we have had enough and to spare, more than 
the squirrellike scholars will ever be able to piece together 
into a single whole, enough to keep the busy popularizers 
spouting in bright-eyed knowledgeability the rest of their 
days; but of the inner facts—of what goes on at the center 
where the forces of our fate first announce themselves—we 
are still pretty much in ignorance, and most of the con¬ 
temporary world is caught up in an unconscious and gigan¬ 
tic conspiracy to run away from these facts. Hence the ne¬ 
cessity of returning to a subject that only appears to be 
well worn. With civilizations, as with individuals, the outer 
fact is often merely the explosion resulting from accumu¬ 
lated inner tension, the signs of which were plentifully pres¬ 
ent, though none of the persons concerned chose to heed 




The central fact of modem history in the West—by which 
we mean the long period from the end of the Middle Ages 
to the present—is unquestionably the decline of religion. No 
doubt, the Churches are still very powerful organizations; 
there are millions of churchgoers all over the world; and 
even the purely intellectual possibilities of religious belief 
look better to churchmen now than in the bleak days of 
self-confident nineteenth-century materialism. A few years 
ago there was even considerable talk about a “religious re¬ 
vival,” and some popular and patriotic periodicals such as 
Life magazine gave a great deal of space to it; but the talk 
has by now pretty much died down, the movement, if any, 
subsided, and the American public buys more automobiles 
and television sets than ever before. When Life magazine 
promotes a revival of religion, one is only too painfully 
aware from the nature of this publication that religion is 
considered as being in the national interest; one could 
scarcely have a clearer indication of the broader historical 
fact that in the modem world the nation-state, a thoroughly 
secular institution, outranks any church. 

The decline of religion in modem times means simply 
that religion is no longer the uncontested center and ruler 
of man s life, and that the Church is no longer the final and 
unquestioned home and asylum of his being. The deepest 
significance of this change does not even appear principally 
at the purely intellectual level, in loss of belief, though this 
loss due to the critical inroads of science has been a major 
historical cause of the decline. The waning of religion is a 
much more concrete and complex fact than a mere change 
in conscious outlook; it penetrates the deepest strata of 
man s total psychic life. It is indeed one of the major stages 
in man's psychic evolution—as Nietzsche, almost alone 
among nineteenth-century philosophers, was to see. Reli¬ 
gion to medieval man was not so much a theological system 
as a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual’s 
life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its or- 


dinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual. 
The loss of the Church was the loss of a whole system of 
symbols, images, dogmas, and rites which had the psycho¬ 
logical validity of immediate experience, and within which 
hitherto the whole psychic life of Western man had been 
safely contained. In losing religion, man lost the concrete 
connection with a transcendent realm of being; he was set 
free to deal with this world in all its brute objectivity. But 
he was bound to feel homeless in such a world, which no 
longer answered the needs of his spirit. A home is the ac¬ 
cepted framework which habitually contains our life. To 
lose one’s psychic container is to be cast adrift, to become 
a wanderer upon the face of the earth. Henceforth, in seek¬ 
ing his own human completeness man would have to do for 
himself what he once had done for him, unconsciously, by 
the Church, through the medium of its sacramental life. 
Naturally enough, man’s feeling of homelessness did not 
make itself felt for some time; the Renaissance man was still 
enthralled by a new and powerful vision of mastery over 
the whole earth. 

No believer, no matter how sincere, could possibly write 
the Divine Comedy today, even if he possessed a talent 
equal to Dante’s. Visions and symbols do not have the im¬ 
mediate and overwhelming reality for us that they had for 
the medieval poet. In the Divine Comedy the whole of na¬ 
ture is merely a canvas upon which the religious symbol 
and image are painted. Western man has spent more than 
five hundred years—half a millennium—in stripping nature 
of these projections and turning it into a realm of neutral 
objects which his science may control. Thus it could hardly 
be expected that the religious image would have the same 
force for us as it did for Dante. This is simply a psychic 
fact within human history; psychic facts have just as much 
historical validity as the facts that we now, unlike the man 
of Dante’s time, travel in airplanes and work in factories 
regulated by computing machines. A great work of art can 
never be repeated—the history of art shows us time and 
again that literal imitation leads to pastiche—because it 
springs from the human soul, which evolves like everything 



else in nature. This point must be insisted upon, contrary 
to the view of some of our more enthusiastic medievalists 
who picture the psychic containment of medieval man as a 
situation of human completeness to which we must return. 
History has never allowed man to return to the past in any 
total sense. And our psychological problems cannot be 
solved by a regression to a past state in which they had 
not yet been brought into being. On the other hand, en¬ 
lightened and progressive thinkers are equally blind when 
they fail to recognize that every major step forward by 
mankind entails some loss, the sacrifice of an older security 
and the creation and heightening of new tensions. (We 
should bear this in mind against some of the criticisms of 
Existentialism as a philosophy that has unbearably height¬ 
ened human tensions: it did not create those tensions, which 
were already at work in the soul of modem man, but simply 
sought to give them philosophic expression, rather than 
evading them by pretending they were not there.) 

It is far from true that the passage from the Middle Ages 
to modem times is the substitution of a rational for a reli¬ 
gious outlook; on the contrary, the whole of medieval phi¬ 
losophy—as Whitehead has very aptly remarked—is one 
of “unbounded rationalism” in comparison with modem 
thought. Certainly, the difference between a St Thomas 
Aquinas in the thirteenth century and a Kant at the end of 
the eighteenth century is conclusive on this point: For Aqui¬ 
nas the whole natural world, and particularly this natural 
world as it opens toward God as First Cause, was transpar¬ 
ently accessible to human reason; while to Kant, writing at 
the bitter end of the century of Enlightenment, the limits 
of human reason had very radically shrunk. (Indeed, as we 
shall see later, the very meaning of human reason became 
altered in Kant.) But this “unbounded rationalism” of the 
medieval philosopher is altogether different from the un¬ 
trammeled use later thinkers made of human reason, apply¬ 
ing it like an add solvent to all things human or divine. 
The rationalism of the medieval philosophers was contained 
by the mysteries of faith and dogma, which were altogether 
beyond the grasp of human reason, but were nevertheless 


powerfully real and meaningful to man as symbols that 
kept the vital circuit open between reason and emotion, be¬ 
tween the rational and non-rational in the human psyche. 
Hence, this rationalism of the medieval philosophers does 
not end with the attenuated, bleak, or grim picture of man 
we find in the modem rationalists. Here, once again, the 
condition under which the philosopher creates his philoso¬ 
phy, like that under which the poet creates his poetry, has 
to do with deeper levels of his being—deeper than the 
merely conscious level of having or not having a rational 
point of view. We could not expect to produce a St. Thomas 
Aquinas, any more than a Dante, today. The total psychic 
condition of man—of which after all thinking is one of the 
manifestations—has evolved too radically. Which may be 
why present-day Thomists have on the whole remained sin¬ 
gularly unconvincing to their contemporaries. 

At the gateway that leads from the Middle Ages into the 
modem world stand Science (which later became the spirit 
of the Enlightenment), Protestantism, and Capitalism. At 
first glance, the spirit of Protestantism would seem to have 
very little to do with that of the New Science, since in mat¬ 
ters religious Protestantism placed all the weight of its em¬ 
phasis upon the irrational datum of faith, as against the im¬ 
posing rational structures of medieval theology, and there 
is Luther’s famous curse upon “the whore, Reason.” In 
secular matters, however—and particularly in its relation to¬ 
ward nature—Protestantism fitted in very well with the New 
Science. By stripping away the wealth of images and sym¬ 
bols from medieval Christianity, Protestantism unveiled na¬ 
ture as a realm of objects hostile to the spirit and to be 
conquered by puritan zeal and industry. Thus Protestant¬ 
ism, like science, helped carry forward that immense proj¬ 
ect of modem man: the despiritualization of nature, the 
emptying of it of all the symbolic images projected upon it 
by the human psyche. With Protestantism begins that long 
modem struggle, which reaches its culmination in the twen¬ 
tieth century, to strip man naked. To be sure, in all of this 
the aim was progress, and Protestantism did succeed in rais¬ 
ing the religious consciousness to a higher level of individual 



sincerity, soul-searching, and strenuous inwardness. Man 
was impoverished in order to come face to face with his 
God and the severe and inexplicable demands of his faith; 
but in the process he was stripped of all the mediating rites 
and dogmas that could make this confrontation less dan¬ 
gerous to his psychic balance. Protestantism achieved a 
heightening of the religious consciousness, but at the same 
time severed this consciousness from the deep unconscious 
life of our total human nature. In this respect, its historical 
thrust runs parallel to that of the New Science and capital¬ 
ism, since science was making the mythical and symbolic 
picture of nature disappear before the success of its own 
rational explanations, and capitalism was opening up the 
whole world as a field of operations for rationally planned 

Faith, for Protestantism, is nevertheless the irrational and 
numinous center of religion; Luther was saturated with the 
feeling of St. Paul that man of himself can do nothing and 
only God working in us can bring salvation. Here the infla¬ 
tion of human consciousness is radically denied, and the 
conscious mind is recognized as the mere instrument and 
plaything of a much greater unconscious force. Faith is an 
abyss that engulfs the rational nature of man. The Protes¬ 
tant doctrine of Original Sin is in all its severity a kind of 
compensatory recognition of those depths below the level 
of consciousness where the earnest soul demands to inter¬ 
rogate itself—except that those depths are cast into the outer 
darkness of depravity. So long as faith retained its intensity, 
however, the irrational elements of human nature were ac¬ 
corded recognition and a central place in the total h uman 
economy. But as the modem world moves onward, it be¬ 
comes more and more secularized in every department of 
life; faith consequently becomes attenuated, and Protestant 
man begins to look more and more like a gaunt skeleton, a 
sculpture by Giacometti. A secular civilization leaves him 
more starkly naked than the iconoclasm of the Reformation 
had ever dreamed. The more severely he struggles to hold 
on to the primal face-to-face relation with God, the more 
tenuous this becomes, until in the end the relation to God 



Himself threatens to become a relation to Nothingness. In 
this sense Kierkegaard, in the middle of the nineteenth cen¬ 
tury, was the reckoning point of the whole Protestant Ref¬ 
ormation that began three centuries earlier: He sees faith 
for the uncompromising and desperate wager it is, if one 
takes it in all its Protestant strictness; and he cannot say, 
like his Catholic counterpart Pascal, “Stupefy yourself, take 
holy water, receive the sacraments, and in the end all shall 
be well”—for Protestant man has forsworn the sacraments 
and natural symbols of the soul as the snares and pomp of 
the deviL Some of Kierkegaard’s books, such as The Sick¬ 
ness Unto Death and The Concept of Dread , are still fright¬ 
ening to our contemporaries and so are excused or merely 
passed over as the personal outpourings of a very melan¬ 
choly temperament; yet they are the truthful record of 
what the Protestant soul must experience on the brink of 
the great Void. Protestant man is the beginning of the 
West’s fateful encounter with Nothingness—an encounter 
that was long overdue and is perhaps only now in the twen¬ 
tieth century reaching its culmination. 


Naturally, none of this was perceived at its beginning. In 
human history, as in the individual human life, the signifi¬ 
cance of the small beginnings is perceived at last only in 
their end. In its secular ethic, Protestantism was much in 
accord with the spirit of capitalism, as modem historians 
have repeatedly shown. For several centuries the two went 
hand in hand, ravaging and rebuilding the globe, conquer¬ 
ing new continents and territories, and in general seeming 
triumphantly to prove that this earth is itself the promised 
land where zeal and industry really pay off. Even in the 
midst of the nineteenth century, when capitalism had also 
succeeded in erecting the worst slums in human history, the 
Knglisbman Macaulay could comment smugly upon the 
fact that the Protestant nations are the most energetic and 



prosperous and suggest that this may very well be a sign of 
the superiority of their religion. The great German sociolo¬ 
gist^ Max Weber, has provided one of the chief keys to the 
whole of modem history by describing its central process 
as the ever-increasing rational organization of human life 0 
It is in this light too that the historical rise of capitalism 
must be understood: the capitalist emerges from feudal so¬ 
ciety as the enterprising and calculating mind who must 
organize production rationally to show a favorable balance 
of profits over costs. Where feudalism is concrete and or¬ 
ganic, with man dominated by the image of the land, capi¬ 
talism is abstract and calculating in spirit, and severs man 
from the earth. In capitalism, everything follows from this 
necessity of rationally orga nizing economic enterprise in the 
interests of efficiency: the collectivization of labor in fac¬ 
tories and the consequent subdivision of human f unc tion; 
the accumulation of masses of the population in cities, with 
the inevitable increase in the technical control of life that 
this makes necessary; and the attempt rationally to control 
public demand by elaborate and fantastic advertising, mass 
pressure, and even planned sociological research. The proc¬ 
ess of rationalizing economic enterprise thus knows no limit s 
and comes to cover the whole of society’s life. That capi¬ 
talism has given way in our time, over large areas of die 
earth, to a form of total collectivization that has been taken 
over by the State does not alter the fundamental human 
issues involved. The collectivization becomes all the more 
drastic when a mystique of the State, backed by brutal regi¬ 
mentation by the police, is added to it. Collectivized 
whether communist or capitalist, is still only an abstract 
fragment of man. 

We are so used to the fact that we forget it or fail to 
perceive that the man of the present day lives on a level of 
abstraction altogether beyond the man of the past. When 
the contemporary m an in the street with only an ordinary 
education quickly solves an elementary problem in arithme¬ 
tic, he is doing something which for a medieval mathema¬ 
tician—an expert—would have required hours. No doubt, 
the medieval man would have produced along with his cal- 



culation a rigorous proof of the whole process; it does not 
matter that the modem man does not know what he is do¬ 
ing, so long as he can manipulate abstractions easily and 
efficiently. The ordinary man today answers complicated 
questionnaires, fills out tax forms, performs elaborate cal¬ 
culations, which the medieval man was never called upon 
to do—and all this merely in the normal routine of being a 
responsible citizen within a mass society. Every step for¬ 
ward in mechanical technique is a step in the direction of 
abstraction. This capacity for living easily and familiarly 
at an extraordinary level of abstraction is the source of 
modem mans power. With it he has transformed the 
planet, annihilated space, and trebled the world's popula¬ 
tion. But it is also a power which has, like everything hu¬ 
man, its negative side, in the desolating sense of rootless¬ 
ness, vacuity, and the lack of concrete feeling that assails 
modem man in his moments of real anxiety. 

The sheer economic power of modem society is attended 
by the same human ambiguities. The rational ordering of 
production makes possible a material level of prosperity be¬ 
yond anything known by the past. Not only can the mate¬ 
rial wants of the masses be satisfied to a degree greater 
than ever before, but technology is fertile enough to gener¬ 
ate new wants that it can also satisfy. Automobiles, radio, 
and now television become actual needs for great numbers 
of people. All of this makes for an extraordinary extemali- 
zation of life in our time. The tempo of living is heightened, 
but a greed for novelties sets in. The machinery of com¬ 
munication makes possible the almost instantaneous con¬ 
veying of news from one point on the globe to another. Peo¬ 
ple read three or four editions of a daily paper, hear the 
news on the radio, or see tomorrow morning's news on their 
television screen at night. Journalism has become a great 
god of the period, and gods have a way of ruthlessly and 
demonically taking over their servitors. In thus becoming a 
state of mind—as Kierkegaard prophesied it would do, writ¬ 
ing with amazing clairvoyance more than a century ago— 
journalism enables people to deal with life more and 
more at second hand. Information usually consists of half- 



truths, and “knowledgeability” becomes a substitute for 
real knowledge* Moreover, popular journalism has by now 
extended its operations into what were previously consid¬ 
ered the strongholds of culture—religion, art, philosophy, 
Everyman walks around with a pocket digest of culture in 
his head. The more competent and streamlined journalism 
becomes, the greater its threat to the public mind—particu¬ 
larly in a country like the United States. It becomes more 
and more difficult to distinguish the secondhand from the 
real thing, until most people end by forget ting there is such 
a distinction. The very success of technique engenders a 
whole style of life for the period, which subsists purely on 
externals. What lies behind those externals—the human per¬ 
son, in its uniqueness and its totality—dwindles to a shadow 
and a ghost. 

In his Man in the Modem Age Karl Jaspers has diagnosed 
all these depersonalizing forces within modem society so 
completely that they hardly need pointing out here. Jaspers 
sees the historical meaning of existential philosophy as a 
struggle to awaken in the individual the possibilities of an 
authentic and genuine life, in the face of the great modem 
drift toward a standardized mass society. Jaspers wrote his 
book in 1930, three years before Hitler came to power and 
precisely at the end of a postwar decade in Germany of 
great intellectual brilliance and greater economic bank¬ 
ruptcy under the Weimar Republic. The book is thus satu¬ 
rated from beginning to end with the dual feeling of the 
great threat and the great promise of modem life. Jaspers 
was one of that generation of Europeans for whom the out¬ 
break of the First World War, coming in the first years of 
their mature life, marked a turning point in their whole way 
of looking at Europe and its civilization. August 1914 is 
the axial date in modem Western history, and once past it 
we are directly confronted with the present-day world. The 
sense of power over the material universe with which mod¬ 
em man emerged, as we have seen, from the Middle Ages, 
changed on that date into its opposite: a sense of weakness 
and dereliction before the whirlwind that man is able to 
unleash but not to control. That feeling of danger has per- 



sisted and grown stronger, and our generation knows it as 
an uncanny awareness of the explosive quality of man’s 
secular powers—and now, alas, with the possession of 
atomic weapons, the word must be taken literally. This 
awareness is a far cry from that sense of intoxication and 
power with which the Renaissance and the Enlightenment 
sought to banish the darkness of the Middle Ages and to 
turn their energies confidently to the conquest of nature; a 
far cry from early Protestantism’s conviction of the sincerity 
of its own conscience and the absolute value of its secular 
ethic; a far cry from the sense of triumph with which capi¬ 
talism pointed to the material prosperity of bourgeois civi¬ 
lization as its justification and end. Jaspers is a Protestant 
who sees in Protestantism no final resolution for the tensions 
of the human soul; a bourgeois who has lived through a 
period in which all the stable fabric and norms of bour¬ 
geois life have been dissolved; and a man of the Enlighten¬ 
ment, a professor, who philosophizes in order to illumine 
human existence, but who sees this illumination as a tiny 
and flickering light set against the encompassing darkness 
of the forces of night. 

The First World War was the beginning of the end of 
the bourgeois civilization of Europe. Of course, ends often 
take long in being accomplished, and capitalism is still 
hanging on by the skin of its teeth in the Western countries. 
Our point here, however, has to do not with the mere eco¬ 
nomic organization of society, but with the concrete and 
total fact of the civilization itself, with all its values and 
attitudes, unspoken and spoken. It would be superficial to 
take the outbreak of that war, as Marxists do, as signifying 
merely the bankruptcy of capitalism, its inability to func¬ 
tion further without crisis and bloodshed. August 1914 was 
a much more total human debacle than that, and the words 
that catch it are those of the novelist Henry James, exclaim¬ 
ing with shocked horror, “To have to take it all now for 
what the treacherous years were all the while making for 
and meaning is too tragic for any words.” As an American, 
James had experienced to the full the enchantment and re¬ 
finement of European civilization; it had been a central 



theme in nearly all his writing, and here in this momentary 
outburst there rises to his mind the awful vision of all Eu¬ 
rope’s elegance and beauty being mere gaudy decoration 
over the face of a human abyss. August 1914 was a debacle 
for European man as a whole and not merely for the wicked 
conspiracy of financiers, militarists, and politicians. The pe¬ 
riod from 1870 to 1914 has been aptly described by one 
historian as the generation of materialism: the principal 
countries of Europe had become unified as nations, prosper¬ 
ity was in the air, and the bourgeois contemplated with 
self-satisfaction an epoch of vast material progress and po¬ 
litical stability. August 1914 shattered the foundations of 
that human world. It revealed that the apparent stability, 
security, and material progress of society had rested, like 
everything human, upon the void. European man came 
face to face with himself as a stranger. When he ceased to 
be contained and sheltered within a stable social and politi¬ 
cal environment, he saw that his rational and enlightened 
philosophy could no longer console him with the assurance 
that it satisfactorily answered the question What is man? 

Existential philosophy (like much of modem art) is thus 
a product of bourgeois society in a state of dissolution. 
Marxists have labored this point but without really under¬ 
standing it; nevertheless, it remains true. The dissolution is 
a fact, but neither Existentialism nor modem art produced 
it. Nor is “dissolution” synonymous with “decadence.” A so¬ 
ciety coming apart at top and bottom, or passing over into 
another form, contains just as many possibilities for revela¬ 
tion as a society running along smoothly in its own rut. The 
individual is thrust out of the sheltered nest that society 
has provided. He can no longer hide his nakedness by the 
old disguises. He learns how much of what he has taken 
for granted was by its own nature neither eternal nor nec¬ 
essary but thoroughly temporal and contingent. He learns 
that the solitude of the self is an irreducible dime nsion of 
human life no matter how completely that self had seemed 
to be contained in its social milieu. In the end, he sees each 
man as solitary and unsheltered before his own death. Ad¬ 
mittedly, these are painful truths, but the most basic thin gs 


are always learned with pain, since our inertia and com¬ 
placent love of comfort prevent us from learning them until 
they are forced upon us. It appears that man is willing to 
learn about himself only after some disaster; after war, eco¬ 
nomic crisis, and political upheaval have taught him how 
flimsy is that human world in which he thought himself so 
securely grounded. What he learns has always been there, 
lying concealed beneath the surface of even the best- 
functioning societies; it is no less true for having come out 
of a period of chaos and disaster. But so long as man does 
not have to face up to such a truth, he will not do so. 

Thus with the modem period, man—to recapitulate—has 
entered upon a secular phase of his history. He entered it 
with exuberance over the prospect of increased power he 
would have over the world around him. But in this world, 
in which his dreams of power were often more than ful¬ 
filled, he found himself for the first time homeless. Science 
stripped nature of its human forms and presented man with 
a universe that was neutral, alien, in its vastness and force, 
to his human purposes. Religion, before this phase set in, 
had been a structure that encompassed man’s life, provid¬ 
ing him with a system of Images and symbols by which he 
could express his own aspirations toward psychic whole¬ 
ness. With the loss of this containing framework man be¬ 
came not only a dispossessed but a fragmentary being. 

In society, as in the spiritual world, secular goals have 
come to predominate; the rational organization of the econ¬ 
omy has increased human power over nature, and politi¬ 
cally also society has become more rational, utilitarian, 
democratic, with a resulting material wealth and progress. 
The men of the Enlightenment foresaw no end to this trium¬ 
phant expansion of reason into all the areas of social life. 
But here too reason has foundered upon its opposite, upon 
the surd and unpredictable realities—wars, economic crises 
and dislocations, political upheavals among the masses. 
Moreover, man’s feeling of homelessness, of alienation has 
been intensified in the midst of a bureaucratized, imper¬ 
sonal mass society. He has come to feel himself an outsider 



even within his own h uman society. He is trebly alienated: 
a stranger to God, to nature, and to the gigantic social ap¬ 
paratus that supplies his material wants. 

But the worst and final form of alienation, toward which 
indeed the others tend, is man’s alienation from his own 
self. In a society that requires of man only that he perform 
competently his own particular social function, man be¬ 
comes identified with this function, and the rest of his be¬ 
ing is allowed to subsist as best it can—usually to be 
dropped below the surface of consciousness and forgotten. 


The foregoing, all matters of historical fact, have also be¬ 
come the themes of existential philosophy. This philosophy 
embodies the self-questioning of the time, seeking to reori¬ 
ent itself to its own historical destiny. Indeed, the whole 
problematic of Existentialism unfolds from this historical 
situation. Alienation and estrangement; a sense of the basic 
fragility and contingency of human life; the impotence of 
reason confronted with the depths of existence; the threat 
of Nothingness, and the solitary and unsheltered condition 
of the individual before this threat. One can scarcely sub¬ 
ordinate these problems logically one to another; each 
participates in all the others, and they all circulate around 
a common center. A single atmosphere pervades them all 
like a chilly wind: the radical feeling of human finitude. 
The limitless horizons into which man looked at the time 
of the Renaissance have at last contracted. Oddly enough, 
man’s discovery that he himself is finite through and 
through—is so, one might say, from the inside out—comes 
at a time when there seem no longer to be any limits to his 
technological conquest of nature. But the truth about man 
is never to be found in one quality that opposes another, 
but in both qualities at once; and so his weakness is only 
one side of the coin, his power the other. A recognition of 
limits, of boundaries, may be the only thing that prevents 
power from dizzy collapse. 



But, it might be argued, what makes Western civiliza¬ 
tion unique is its possession of science, and in science we 
find uniform and continuous progress without limits. Re¬ 
search goes on, its results are rich and positive, and these 
are brought together in ever wider and more inclusive sys¬ 
tems. There would seem, in this process, to be no contract¬ 
ing of horizons either in fact or in possibility. In a certain 
sense this is true, and yet science in the twentieth century 
has come up with answers which make the ambitions of 
rationalism seem overweening, and which themselves sug¬ 
gest that man must redefine his traditional concept of rea¬ 
son. It would be unlikely if this were otherwise, for scien¬ 
tists too are men and therefore participate in the collective 
psyche as well as help fashion it. Religion, social forms, 
science, and art are modes in which man exists; and the 
more we come to recognize the temporal being of man the 
more we must recognize a unity within and behind all these 
modes in which that temporal existence finds its expression. 

Science too—and within its own authentic sphere—has 
come up against the fact of human finitude. That this has 
happened within science itself, and not in the philosophiz¬ 
ing about science, makes the discovery more authentic and 
momentous. The anthropological sciences, and particularly 
modem depth psychology, have shown us that human rea¬ 
son is the long historical fabrication of a creature, man, 
whose psychic roots still extend downward into the prime¬ 
val soil. These discoveries of the irrational, however, lie out¬ 
side reason itself; they are stubborn obstacles to the use of 
reason in our lives, but obstacles which the confirmed ra¬ 
tionalist mig ht still hope to circumvent by a cleverer use of 
that very tool, reason. The more decisive limitations are 
those that have shown up within the workings of reason, 
in the more rigorous sciences of physics and mathemat¬ 
ics. The most advanced of Western sciences, physics and 
mathematics, have in our tim e become paradoxical: that 
is, they have arrived at the state where they breed para¬ 
doxes for reason itself. More than a hundred and fifty years 
ago the philosopher Kant attempted to show that there 
were ineluctable limit s to reason; but the Western mind. 



positivistic to the core, could be expected to take such a 
conclusion seriously only when it showed up in the findings 
of science. Science has in this century, with the discoveries 
of Heisenberg in physics, and Godel in mathematics, at last 
caught up with Kant. 

Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy shows that there 
are essential limits to our ability to know and predict physi¬ 
cal states of affairs, and opens up to us a glimpse of a nature 
that may at bottom be irrational and chaotic—at any rate, 
our knowledge of it is limited so that we cannot know this 
not to be the case. This finding marks an end to the old 
dream of physicists who, motivated by a thoroughly ra¬ 
tional prejudice, thought that reality must be predictable 
through and through. The figure of the Lapladan Demon 
was a very striking symbol of this: Imagine, says Laplace, 
a Being who knows the position and momentum of every 
particle in the universe, together with the laws of motion 
governing such particles; such a Being would be able to 
predict all subsequent states of the universe. Physicists can 
no longer operate on such cryptotheological faiths, but must 
take their predictability only where and to the extent that 
it exhibits itself in experience. 

The situation in physics is made more paradoxical by 
Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity, according to which 
the electron must be regarded both as a wave and as a 
particle, according to its context The application of these 
contradictory designations would have seemed thoroughly 
illogical to a nineteenth-century physicist. Indeed, some 
physicists have suggested a new form of logic, from which 
the classic law of the Excluded Middle (either A or not A) 
would be dropped; and when new forms of logic are being 
constructed, one can only conclude that the nature of what 
is and what is not rational stands open to doubt. In prac¬ 
tice, the Principle of Complementarity sets a rigorous limit 
upon the observations of physics: As one physicist. Von 
Pauli, puts it, "I can choose to observe one experimental 
set-up , A, and ruin B, or choose to observe B and ruin A. 
I cannot choose not to ruin one of them ” Here the language 
is perfectly appropriate to the pathos of knowledge in ev- 



ery area in life: we know one thing at the cost of not know¬ 
ing something else, and it is simply not the case that we 
can choose to know everything at once. What is remarkable 
is that here, at the very farthest reaches of precise experi¬ 
mentation, in the most rigorous of the natural sciences, the 
ordinary and banal fact of our human limitations emerges. 

Go del’s findin gs seem to have even more far-reaching con¬ 
sequences, when one considers that in the Western tradi¬ 
tion, from the Pythagoreans and Plato onward, mathemat¬ 
ics as the very model of intelligibility has been the central 
citadel of rationalism. Now it turns out that even in his 
most precise science—in the province where his reason had 
seemed omnipotent—man cannot escape his essential fini- 
tude: every system of mathematics that he constructs is 
doomed to incompleteness. Godel has shown that mathe¬ 
matics contains insoluble problems, and hence can never be 
formalized in any complete system. This means, in other 
words, that mathematics can never be turned over to a giant 
computing machine; it will always be unfinished, and 
therefore mathematicians—the human beings who construct 
mathematics—will always be in business. The human ele¬ 
ment here rises above the machine: mathematics is unfin¬ 
ished as is any human life. 

But since mathematics can never be completed, it might 
be argued that Godel’s finding shows us that there are no 
limits to mathematical knowledge. True, in one sense; but 
in another sense it sets a more drastic limitation upon math¬ 
ematical knowledge, since mathematicians now know they 
can never, formally speaking, reach rock bottom; in fact, 
there is no rock bottom, since mathematics has no self- 
subsistent reality independent of the human activity that 
mathematicians carry on. And if human reason can never 
reach rock bottom (complete systematization) in mathe¬ 
matics, it is not likely to reach it anywhere else. There is 
no System possible for human existence, Kierkegaard said 
a century ago, differing with Hegel, who wished to enclose 
reality within a completely rational structure; the System is 
impossible for mathematics, Godel tells us today. In prac¬ 
tice, the fact that there is no rock bottom means that the 



mathematician can never prove the consistency of mathe¬ 
matics except by using means that are shakier than the sys¬ 
tem he is trying to prove consistent Mathematics thus 
cannot escape finally the uncertainty that attaches to any 
human enterprise. 

The situation is all the more vexing since mathematicians 
in the last half century have come up with some very trou¬ 
blesome paradoxes. Mathematics is like a ship in mid-ocean 
that has spr ung certain leaks (paradoxes); the leaks have 
been temporarily plugged, but our reason can never guar¬ 
antee that the ship will not spring others. This human in¬ 
security in what had been the most secure of the disciplines 
of rationality marks a new turn in Western thinking. When 
the mathematician Hermann Weyl exclaims, "We have 
tried to storm Heaven, and we have only succeeded in pil¬ 
ing up the tower of Babel,” he is giving passionate expres¬ 
sion to the collapse of human kubris; and we can be sure 
that mathematics has at last been returned to its rightful 
status as an activity or mode of being of finite man. 

The concurrence of these various discoveries in time is 
extraordinary. Heidegger published his Being and Time, a. 
somber and rigorous meditation on human finitude, in 1927. 
In the same year Heisenberg gave to the world his Principle 
of Indeterminacy. In 1929 the mathematician Skolem pub¬ 
lished a theorem which some mathematicians now think al¬ 
most as remarkable as GodeFs: that even the elementary 
number system cannot be categorically formalized. In 1931 
appeared Godel’s epoch-making discovery. When events 
run parallel this way, when they occur so close together in 
time, but independently of each other and in diverse fields, 
we are tempted to conclude that they are not mere "mean¬ 
ingless” coincidences but very meaningful symptoms. The 
whole mind of the time seems to be inclining in one di¬ 

What emerges from these separate strands of history is 
an image of man himself that bears a new, stark, more 
nearly naked, and more questionable aspect. The contrac¬ 
tion of man’s horizons amounts to a denudation, a stripping 
down, of this being who has now to confront himself at the 


center of all his horizons. The labor of modem culture, 
wherever it has been authentic, has been a labor of denuda¬ 
tion. A return to the sources; “to the things themselves,” as 
Husserl puts it; toward a new truthfulness, the casting away 
of ready-made presuppositions and empty forms—these are 
some of the slogans under which this phase in history has 
presented itself. Naturally enough, much of this stripping 
down must appear as the work of destruction, as revolu¬ 
tionary or even “negative”: a being who has become thor¬ 
oughly questionable to himself must also find questionable 
his relation to the total past which in a sense he represents. 

This apparent “coincidence” of historical forces becomes 
even more remarkable and meaningful when we consider 
modem art. What man has experienced historically with 
the changes in religion, in social and economic forms, and 
now in modem science as well—all of this experience is re¬ 
vealed to us, in a more striking and more human way, 
through art. Art is the collective dream of a period, a dream 
in which, if we have eyes to see, we can trace the physiog¬ 
nomy of the time most clearly. A brief glance at modem 
art may serve to make plain that the spiritual features of 
modernity which we have been anatomizing in this chapter 
have not been bare and empty abstractions, but a living 
human drama in which we have all been deeply involved, 
but which the artist has the clearest eyes to see. 


Chapter Three 

Now that my ladder’s gone, 

I must lie down where all ladders start. 

In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart 
w. B. YEATS 

Anyone who attempts to gain a unified understanding of 
modem art as a whole is bound to suffer the uncomfortable 
sensation of having fallen into a thicket of brambles. We 
ourselves are involved in the subject, and we can hardly 
achieve the detachment of the historian a few centuries 
hence. Modem art still provokes violent controversy, even 
after it has been on the scene a good half century and names 
like Picasso and Joyce have become almost household 
words. The Philistine still finds it shocking, scandalous, and 
foolish; and there is always a case to be made for the 
Philistine, and surely for the Philistine in ourselves without 
whom we could not carry on the drab business of ordinary 
living. Indeed, from the point of view we are taking here, 
the Philistine attitude, particularly in its irritation, may be 
just as revelatory historically as any other. But it is a case 
not only of the Philistine; sensitive observers still exist—di¬ 
rectors of museums, connoisseurs, and historians—who find 
in modem art a disastrous falling away from the excellence 
of the art of the past. In a sense, all this controversy is 
pointless; so much of it has to do with the eventual his- 



toxical rating of our own period, which is something we can¬ 
not even foresee. The century from Manet to Matisse may 
figure in future art histories as a period of impoverishment 
and decline, whose works cannot stand beside those of the 
old masters; or it may figure as a period of such abundant 
creativity that it can be matched only by the Renaissance 
during the fifteenth century. My own personal prejudice is 
toward the latter judgment, but I have no way of proving 
it; and such speculation, in any case, does not enter into 
my own experience of this art. We have simply got to give 
up the attempt to assess ourselves for posterity; the men 
of the future will form their own opinions without our help. 
What we so self-consciously call “modem art,” after all, is 
nothing more nor less than the art of this time, our art; 
there is no other today. If we could have a different art, 
or a better, we would have it. As it is, we are lucky in this 
period to have any art at all. The Philistine rebukes the 
artist for being willful, as if all of modem art were a de¬ 
liberate conspiracy against him, the viewer; the artist can 
hardly hope to make this man understand that art is not a 
mere matter of conscious will and conscious contrivance, 
and that the artist, by changing his ideas (even by adopt¬ 
ing the Philistin e's), will not become a different person 
living at a different time and place. In the end the only 
authentic art is that which has about it the power of in¬ 

Nevertheless, the controversy, irritation, and bafflement 
to which modem art gives rise does provide us a very ef¬ 
fective handle with which to take hold of it. Irritation usu¬ 
ally arises when something touches a sore spot in ourselves, 
which most of the time we would like desperately to hide; 
rarely if ever does the fault lie totally with the provoking 
object Modem art touches a sore spot, or several sore spots, 
in the ordinary citizen of which he is totally unaware. The 
more irritated he becomes at modem art the more he be¬ 
trays the fact that he himself, and his civilization, are im¬ 
plicated in what the artist shows him. The ordinary citizen 
objects to modem art because it is difficult and obscure. 
Is it so certain that the world the ordinary citizen takes for 



granted, the values upon which his civilization rests are so 
clear, either to him or in themselves? Sometimes the artist’s 
image is very clear (in general, modem art is simpler than 
academic art), but it goes against the grain of the ordinary 
man because secretly he understands its intent all too well; 
and besides, he has already limited “understanding” to the 
habitual pigeonholes into which he slips every experience. 
The ordinary man is uncomfortable, angry, or derisive be¬ 
fore the dislocation of forms in modem art, before its 
bold distortions, or arbitrary manipulations of objects. The 
painter puts three or more eyes in the face, or several noses, 
or twists and elongates the body at the expense of photo¬ 
graphic resemblance in order to build up his own inner 
image. Has the contrary attitude of strict and literal attach¬ 
ment to objects succeeded in resolving all the anxieties of 
the ordinary man, and has not in fact the rampant extro¬ 
version of modem civilization brought it to the brink of the 
abyss? Finally, the ordinary man—and in this respect the 
ordinary man is joined by the learned and sensitive tradi¬ 
tionalist in art—objects to the content of modem art: it is 
too bare and bleak, too negative or “nihilistic,” too shock¬ 
ing or scandalous; it dishes out unpalatable truths. But 
have the traditional ideals worked so well in this century 
that we can afford to neglect the unpalatable truths about 
human life that those ideals have chosen to ignore? Does 
the aesthete who extols the greatness of the past as an argu¬ 
ment against modem art have any idea of how pallid his 
own response to, say, the Virgin of Chartres appears beside 
the medieval man’s response? Or that his own aestheticism, 
however cultured, is in fact a fonn of sentimentality—since 
sentimentality, at bottom, is nothing but false feeling, feel¬ 
ing that is untrue to its object, whether by being excessive 
or watered down? 

In a famous passage in A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hem¬ 
ingway writes: 

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, 

and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard 

them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of ear- 


shot, so that only the shouted words came through, and 
had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up 
by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long 
time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that 
were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like 
the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the 
meat except to bury it. There were many words that you 
could not stand to hear and finally only the names of 
places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way 
and certain dates and these with the names of places 
were all you could say and have them mean anything. 
Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow 
were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the 
numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of 
regiments and the dates. 

For a whole generation that was the great statement of pro¬ 
test against the butchery of the First World War. But it 
has a greater historical significance than that: it can be 
taken as a kind of manifesto of modem art and literature, 
an incitement to break through empty abstractions of what¬ 
ever kind, to destroy sentimentality even if the real feel¬ 
ings exposed should appear humble and impoverished—the 
names of places and dates; and even if in stripping himself 
naked the artist seems to be left with Nothing. Modem art 
thus begins, and sometimes ends, as a confession of spirit¬ 
ual poverty. That is its greatness and its triumph, but also 
the needle it jabs into the Philistines sore spot, for the last 
thing he wants to be reminded of is his spiritual poverty. 
In fact, his greatest poverty is not to know how impover¬ 
ished he is, and so long as he mouths the empty ideals or 
religious phrases of the past he is but as tinkling brass. In 
matters of the spirit, poverty and riches are sometimes 
closer than identical twins: the man who stmts with bor¬ 
rowed feathers may be poor as a church mouse within, 
while a work that seems stark and bleak can, if genuine, 
speak with all the inexhaustible richness of the world. The 
triumph of Hemingway’s style is its ability to break through 
abstractions to see what it is one really senses and feels. 



When the modem sculptor disdains the pomp of marble 
and uses industrial materials, steel wire, or bolts, or even 
rejected materials like old board, rope, or nails, he is per¬ 
haps showing himself to be impoverished next to the heroic 
grandeur of a Michelangelo, but he is also bringing us back 
to the inexhaustible brute world that surrounds us. Some¬ 
times the confession of poverty takes a violent and aggres¬ 
sive tone, as when the Dadaists drew a mustache on the 
Mona Lisa. Dada itself, like Hemingway, came out of the 
revolt against the First World War, and despite its clown¬ 
ing must now be regarded as one of the valid eruptions of 
the irrational in this century. The generation of the First 
World War could hardly be expected to view Western cul¬ 
ture as sacrosanct, since they perceived—and rightly—that 
it was bound up with the civilization that had ended in 
that ghastly butchery. Better then to reject the trappings 
of that culture, even art itself, if that would leave one a 
little more honest in one's nakedness. To discover one's own 
spiritual poverty is to achieve a positive conquest by the 

Modem art has been an immense movement toward the 
destruction of forms—of received and traditional forms. The 
positive side of this has been an immense expansion of the 
possibilities of art and an almost greedy acquisition of new 
forms from all over the globe. Around 1900 French painters 
became interested in African sculpture. (The introduction 
of Japanese prints into Europe in the nineteenth century 
had already brought with it a profound shift in the sensi¬ 
bility of Western painters.) And these borrowings were 
only the beginning; by now we have become accustomed 
to painters and sculptors drawing their forms from Oriental 
and primitive art of every culture. This century in art, 
Andr6 Malraux has said, will go down in history not as the 
period of abstract art but as the period in which all the art 
of the past, and from every quarter of the globe, became 
available to the painter and sculptor, and through them be¬ 
came a part of our modem taste. Certainly, we can no 
longer look upon the canon of Western art—Greco-Roman 
art as revived, extended, and graced by the Renaissance- 



as the tradition in art, or even any longer as distinctly and 
uniquely ours . That canon is in fact only one tradition 
among many, and indeed in its strict adherence to repre¬ 
sentational form is rather the exception in the whole gallery 
of human art. Such an extension of the resources of the past, 
for the modem artist, implies a different and more compre¬ 
hensive understanding of the term “human” itself: a Sume¬ 
rian figure of a fertility goddess is as “human” to us as a 
Greek Aphrodite. When the sensibility of an age can ac¬ 
commodate the alien “inhuma n” forms of primitive art side 
by side with the classic “human” figures of Greece or the 
Renaissance, it should be obvious that the attitude toward 
man that we call classical humanism—which is the intel¬ 
lectual expression of the spirit that informs the classical 
canon of Western art—has also gone by the boards. This is 
an historical fact the most immediate evidence of which is 
the whole body of modem art itself. Even if existential phi¬ 
losophy had not been formulated, we would know from 
modem art that a new and radical conception of man was 
at work in this period. 

It would be a mistake to construe this breaking out on 
the part of Western artists from the confinement of what 
had been their tradition as mere expansion or a spiritually 
imperialistic act of acquisition. It is not simply an external 
and quantitative change in the number of forms the artist 
can assimilate, it is also, and more profoundly, an internal 
and qualitative change in the spirit with which the artist 
appropriates these forms. This breaking out of the tradition 
is in fact also a breakdown within the Western tradition. 
On this point the artistic conservative who rejects modem 
art, seeing it as a scandal and a departure from the tradi¬ 
tion, sees rightly, however he may turn what he sees to 
his own purposes. That Western painters and sculptors have 
in this century gone outside their own tradition to nourish 
themselves on the art of the rest of the world—Oriental, 
African, Melanesian—signifies that what we have known as 
the tradition is no longer able to nourish its most creative 
members: the confining mold of this tradition has broken, 
under pressures both from within and without. It would be 



possible to avoid this painful conclusion, and to dismiss this 
group of artists as mere irresponsibles, and skillful renegades 
from the tradition, if there were any artists of comparable 
achievement whose work the anti-modernist could set over 
against theirs. But what is equally sure—and this negative 
evidence is strong or even stronger on the side of the mod¬ 
ems—is that the academic art of this period is as dead as 
mutton. It excites no one, depresses no one, and does not 
even really soothe anyone. It simply does not live; it is out¬ 
side the time. 

If we turn to the internal and formal characteristics of 
modem art, without reference to its external inspirations in 
African or primitive or Oriental art, we find the same in¬ 
dications of a radical transformation of the Western spirit. 
Cubism is the classicism of modem art: that is, the one for¬ 
mally perfected style which modem art has elaborated and 
from which all modem abstract art that is valid has derived. 

A great deal of nonsense has been written about the crea¬ 
tion of Cubism, connecting it with relativity physics, psy¬ 
choanalysis, and heaven knows how many other complex 
and remote things. The fact is that the painters who cre¬ 
ated Cubism were creating paintings and nothing else—cer¬ 
tainly they were not dealing in ideologies. Cubism evolved 
in a succession of perfectly logical steps out of previous 
stages of painting, out of the Impressionists and Cezanne, 
and it raised a series of pictorial problems that had to be 
solved within the medium of painting and by painters work¬ 
ing strictly as painters—that is, upon the visual image as j 
such. I 

Yet a great formal style in painting has never been cre¬ 
ated that did not draw upon the depths of the human spirit, j 
and that did not, in its newness, express a fresh mutation 
of the human spirit. Cubism achieved a radical flattening j 
of space by insisting on the two-dimensional fact of the can¬ 
vas. This flattening out of space would seem not to be a 
negligible fact historically if we reflect that when, once be¬ 
fore in history, such a development occurred but in the op¬ 
posite direction—when the flatness of the Gothic or primitive I 



painters passed over into the solidity, perspective, and 
three-dimensional style of early Renaissance painting—it 
was a mark that man was turning outward, into space, after 
the long period of introspection of the Middle Ages. West¬ 
ern man moved out into space in his painting, in the four¬ 
teenth century, before he set forth into actual physical space 
in the age of exploration that was to follow. Thus painting 
was prophetic of the new turn of the human spirit which 
was eventually to find expression in the conquest of the 
whole globe. Have we the right, then, to suggest that the 
flattening of painting in our own century portends a turn¬ 
ing inward of the human spirit, or at any rate a turning 
away from that outer world of space which has hitherto 
been the ultimate arena of Western mans extroversion? 
With Cubism begins that process of detachment from the 
object which has become the hallmark of modem art. Even 
though Cubism is a classical and formal style, the artist 
nevertheless asserts his own subjectivity by the freedom 
with which he cuts up and dislocates objects—bottles, pitch¬ 
ers, guitars—as it pleases him for the sake of the picture, 
which is now no longer held up to us as a representation 
of those objects but as a visual image with its own inde¬ 
pendent value alongside that of nature. The subjectivity 
that is generally present in modem art is a psychological 
compensation for, sometimes a violent revolt against, the 
gigantic extemalization of life within modem society. The 
world pictured by the modem artist is, like the world medi¬ 
tated upon by the existential philosopher, a world where 
man is a stranger. 

When mankind no longer lives spontaneously turned to¬ 
ward God or the supersensible world—when, to echo the 
words of Yeats, the ladder is gone by which we would 
climb to a higher reality—the artist too must stand face to 
face with a flat and inexplicable world. This shows itself 
even in the formal structures of modem art. Where the 
movement of the spirit is no longer vertical but only hori¬ 
zontal, the climactic elements in art are in general leveled 
out, flattened. The flattening of pictorial space that is 
achieved in Cubism is not an isolated fact, true only of 



painting, but is paralleled by similar changes in literary 
techniques. There is a general process of flatt ening , three 
chief aspects of which may be noted: 

(1) The flattening out of aU planes upon the plane of 
the picture. Near and far are pushed together. So in certain 
works of modem literature time, instead of space, is flat¬ 
tened out upon one plane. Past and present are represented 
as occurring simultaneously, upon a single plane of time. 
James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and 
Ezra Pound’s Cantos are examples; and perhaps the most 
powerful use of the device was made by Faulkner in his 
early novel The Sound and the Fury. 

(a) More important perhaps is the flattening out of 
climaxes, which occurs both in painting and literature. In 
traditional Western painting there is a central subject, lo¬ 
cated at or near the center of the picture, and the surround¬ 
ing space in the picture is subordinate to this. In a portrait 
the figure is placed near the center, and the background 
becomes secondary to it, something to be blended as har¬ 
moniously as possible with the figure. Cubism abolished 
this idea of the pictorial climax: the whole space of the 
picture became of equal importance. Negative spaces (in 
which there are no objects) are as important as positive 
spaces (the contours of physical objects). If a human figure 
is treated, it may be broken up and distributed over various 
parts of the canvas. Formally speaking, the spirit of fhfa 
art is anticlimactic. 

When we turn to observe this same deflation or flatten¬ 
ing of climaxes in literature, the broader human and philo¬ 
sophic questions involved become much clearer. The classi¬ 
cal tradition in literature, deriving from Aristotle’s Poetics, 
tells us that a drama (and consequently any other literary 
work) must have a be ginnin g., middle, and end. The action 
begins at a certain point, rises toward a elimay, and then 
falls to a denouement. One can diagram a classical plot of 
this kind by means of a triangle whose apex represents the 
climax with which everything in the play has some logical 
and necessary connection. The author subordinates himgftlf 
to the requirements of logic, necessity, probability. His 



structure must be an intelligible whole in which each part 
develops logically out of what went before. If our existence 
itself is never quite like this, no matter; art is a selection 
from life, and the poet is required to be selective. However, 
it is important to note that this canon of intelligible literary 
structure—beginning, middle, and end, with a well-defined 
climax—arose in a culture in which the universe too was 
believed to be an ordered structure, a rational and intelligi¬ 
ble whole. 

What happens if we try to apply this classical Aristo¬ 
telian canon to a modem work like Joyce’s Ulysses , 
734 pages of power and dullness, beauty and sordidness, 
comedy and pathos, where the movement is always hori¬ 
zontal, never ascending toward any crisis, and where we 
detect not the shadow of anything like a climax, in the 
traditional sense of that term? If Joyce’s had been a dis¬ 
ordered mind, we could dismiss all this as a sprawling 
chaos; but he was in fact an artist in superb control of his 
material, so that the disorder has to be attributed to his 
material, to life itself. It is, in fact, the banal gritty thing 
that we live that Joyce gives us, in comparison with which 
most other fiction is indeed fiction. This world is dense, 
opaque, unintelligible; that is the datum from which the 
modem artist always starts. The formal dictates of the well- 
made play or the well-made novel, which were the logical 
outcome of thoroughly rational preconceptions about real¬ 
ity, we can no longer hold to when we become attentive 
“to the things themselves,” to the facts, to existence in the 
mode in which we do exist. If our epoch still held to the 
idea, as Western man once did, that the whole of reality is 
a system in which each detail providentially and rationally 
is subordinated to others and ultimately to the whole itself, 
we could demand of the artist that his form imitate this 
idea of reality, and give us coherence, logic, and the pic¬ 
ture of a world with no loose ends. But to make such a 
demand nowadays is worse than an impertinence: it is a 
travesty upon the historical being of the artist. 

Even where the writer has more of a story, in the tradi¬ 
tional sense, to tell, he may prefer not to tell it in the tradi- 



tional way. In The Sound and the Fury Faulkner has much 
more of a novelistic narrative than Joyce in Ulysses—the de¬ 
cline of a family, a suicide, the elopement of a girl, and so 
on—but he chooses not to present these events in the form 
of the well-made novel. And the choice is wise, for the 
power of the novel is increased immeasurably thereby. The 
brute, irrational, given quality of the world comes through 
so strongly in Faulkner’s peculiar technique that he actu¬ 
ally shows, and does not merely state, the meaning of the 
quotation from which his title is derived: 

[Life] is a tale , 

Told by an idiot , full of sound and fury , 

Signifying nothing . 

Shakespeare places these lines in the context of a fairly 
well-made tragedy in which evil is destroyed and good tri¬ 
umphs; but Faulkner shows us the world of which Shake¬ 
speare’s statement would be true: a world opaque, dense, 
and irrational, that could not have existed for Shakespeare, 
close as he was still to medieval Christianity. Even where 
a purposeful hu man action is planned, in the novel, and the 
necessary steps taken to carry it through—as in the section 
on the day Quentin Compson commits suicide—what really 
happens has little to do with the traditional order, logic, 
sequence of events that normally accompany such an ac¬ 
tion. The day described shows us not the abstraction 
Quentin Compson commits suicide” but, as the author 
turns his own and his reader’s eye “to the thin gs them¬ 
selves,” a process far more concrete and contingent: a spar¬ 
row chirps at the window, a watch breaks, the hero gets 
entangled in a perfectly absurd melee with a little r unaw ay 
girl, there is a fist fight, etc.; and underneath all this is, but 
never mentioned, the slow blind surge moving forward like 
an underground river toward the sea, of a man’s going to 
his death. This section, and the book itself, is a master¬ 
piece, perhaps as great as anything yet written by an 
American; and is to be recommended to anyone who 
wants to know the concrete feel of that world with which 
in his t h i nkin g the existential philosopher has to deal. 



In the course of the brute random flow of detail that is 
that last day of his life, Quentin Compson breaks the crystal 
of his watch. He twists off the two hands and thereafter, 
throughout the day, the watch continues to tick loudly but 
cannot, with its faceless dial, indicate the time. Faulkner 
could not have hit on a better image to convey the sense of 
time which permeates the whole book. The normal reckon- 
able sequence of time-one moment after another—has been 
broken, has disappeared; but as the watch pounds on, time 
is all the more urgent and real for Quentin Compson. He 
cannot escape time, he is in it, it is the time of his fate and 
his decision; and the watch has no hands to reassure him of 
that normal, calculable progression of minutes and hours in 
which our ordinary day-to-day life is passed. Time is no 
longer a reckonable sequence, then, for him, but an inex¬ 
haustible inescapable presence. We are dose here—as we 
shall see later—to the thought of Heidegger. (Faulkner cer¬ 
tainly never read Heidegger; he may never even have 
heard of him. So much the better; for the testimony of the 
artist, the poet, is all the more valid when it is not con¬ 
taminated by any intellectual preconceptions.) Real time, 
the time that makes up the dramatic substance of our life, 
is something deeper and more primordial than watches, 
clocks, and calendars. Time is the dense medium in which 
Faulkners characters move about as if dragging their feet 
through water: it is their substance or Being, as Heidegger 
would put it. The abolition of clock time does not mean a 
retreat into the world of the timeless; quite the contrary: 
the timeless world, the eternal, has disappeared from the 
horizon of the modem writer as it has from the horizon of 
modem Existentialists like Sartre and Heidegger, and from 
the horizon of our own everyday life; and time thereby be¬ 
comes all the more inexorable and absolute a reality. The 
temporal is the horizon of modem man, as the eternal was 
the horizon of the man of the Middle Ages. That modem 
writers have been so preoccupied with the reality of time, 
Tiqr>dling it with radically new techniques and from radi¬ 
cally new points of view, is evidence that the philosophers 
in our age who have attempted a new understanding of 



time are responding to the same hidden historical con¬ 
cerns, and are not merely elaborating some new conceptual 
novelty out of their heads. 

These details about art, it should be apparent to the 
reader, are not dragged in by the heels. Nor are they the 
elaborate constructions which it has become the critical 
fashion in this country to force upon works of art. On the 
contrary, the features we have mentioned He open and ac¬ 
cessible—on the very surface, so to speak, of the works of 
art themselves; and to see them requires only that we take 
art seriously, which means to take it as a revelation: a reve¬ 
lation of its time and of the being of man, and of the two 
together, the being of man in his time. 

No be g in nin g, middle, end—such is the structureless 
structure that some modem literary works struggle toward; 
and analogously in painting, no clearly demarcated fore¬ 
ground, middleground, and background. To the tradition¬ 
alist, immersed in the classical Western tradition, all this 
will appear negative, purely destructive. But if we do not 
keep our gaze narrowly riveted on the tradition of the West 
(and in any case this classical canon is only one of the tradi¬ 
tions that have arisen in the course of the whole history of 
the West), we find that these requirements of logical and 
rational form do not hold for other traditions of art in other 
cultures. Oriental art, for example, is much more formless, 
organic, and sprawling than classical Western art. It has 
form, but a different form from that of the West. Why is 
this? The question is not a trivial one; it is perhaps as pro¬ 
found as any the West can ask these days, for this difference 
in art is not mere happenstance but the inevitable concomi¬ 
tant of a different attitude toward the world. 

One of the best indications of this peculiar (to us) sense 
of artistic form among Orientals is given by E. M. Forster 
in his novel A Passage to India . A mixed group, English 
and Indians, are at tea, and Professor Godbole, a Hindu, 
has been asked to sing, but has let the occasion go by; then, 
as all are leaving, the Hindu says, “I may sing now,*' quite 
unexpectedly. (This unexpectedness is significant, for the 
song is not to be given a formal setting, but to drop upon 


their ears as casually and contingently as life itself.) For¬ 
ster’s description of the song makes our point so beautifully 
that it is worth quoting in its entirety: 

His thin voice rose, and gave out one sound after another. 
At times there seemed rhy thm , at times there was the 
illusion of a Western melody. But the ear, baffled re¬ 
peatedly, soon lost any clue, and wandered in a maze of 
noises, none harsh or unpleasant, none intelligible. It was 
the song of an unknown bird. Only the servants under¬ 
stood it. They began to whisper to one another. The man 
who was gathering water chestnuts came naked out of 
the tank, his lips parted with delight, disclosing his scar¬ 
let tongue. The sounds continued and ceased after a few 
moments as casually as they had begun—apparently half 
through a bar, and upon the subdominant. 

The song begins, goes on, suddenly stops; but there is not 
the least trace of an Aristotelian beginning, middle, or end. 
Compare Godbole’s song with the structure of an aria from 
an Italian opera. In the latter we have a beginning, a de¬ 
velopment through certain predictable phases toward the 
inevitable climax of the high note, and then the falling 
away or denouement, tying up the whole thing in a neat 
package: here is Aristotelian and rational form in music. 
But the Oriental song baffles the ear of the Westerner; it 
appears unintelligible. The reason is that the Westerner de¬ 
mands (or, let us say, used to demand) an intelligibility 
that the Easterner does not. If the Westerner finds the Ori¬ 
ental music ‘meaningless,” the Oriental might very well re¬ 
ply that this is the meaninglessness of nature itself which 
goes on endlessly without beginning, middle, or end. 

The real reason for the difference between the sense of 
artistic form in the East and in the West is thus ultimately 
a difference in philosophic outlook. Since the Greeks, West¬ 
ern man has believed that Being, all Being, is intelligible, 
that there is a reason for everything (at least, the central 
tradition that runs from Aristotle through St. Thomas Aqui¬ 
nas into the beginning of the modem period has held this), 
and that the cosmos is, finally, intelligible. The Oriental, on 



the other hand, has accepted his existence within a universe 
that would appear to be meaningless, to the rational West¬ 
ern mind, and has lived with this meaninglessness. Hence 
the artistic form that seems natural to the Oriental is one 
that is just as formless or formal, as irrational, as life itself. 
That the Western artist now finds his own inherited classical 
form unconvincing and indeed almost intolerable is because 
of a profound change in his total attitude toward the world 
—a change that is no less true even when the artist himself 
has not been able to bring it to conceptual expression. The 
final intelligibility of the world is no longer accepted. Our 
existence, as we know it, is no longer transparent and un¬ 
derstandable by reason, bound together into a tight, coher¬ 
ent structure. The world that we are shown in the work of 
the modem painters and writers is opaque and dense. Their 
vision is not inspired primarily by intellectual premises; it 
is a spontaneous revelation of the kind of which perhaps 
only art is capable: it shows us where we stand, whether or 
not we choose to understand it. If we really open ourselves 
to the experience of two works of art as widely separated 
in time as Dante’s Divine Comedy and Faulkner’s The 
Sound and the Furyy the distance that Western man has 
traveled in the intervening centuries is revealed to us more 
clearly than through any number of abstract arguments. 
And the road that has been traveled is irreversible. 

(3) The last and most important aspect of what we 
have called the process of flattening in modem art is the 
flattening out of values. To understand this one can begin 
at the simplest level in painting, where it means merely that 
large and small objects are treated as of equal value. 
Cezanne paints apples with the same passionate concentra¬ 
tion as he paints mountains, and each apple is as monu¬ 
mental as a mountain. Indeed, in some of Cezanne’s still 
lifes, if one covers up all of the picture except a certain 
patch of folded tablecloth, one might very well be looking 
at the planes and peaks of his Mont St. Victoire. For 
Cezanne the painting dictates its own values: little and big, 
high and low, sublime and ordinary outside the painting 


are of equal importance if in a given painting they play the 
same plastic role. 

Now all this is quite contrary to the great tradition of 
Western art, which distinguishes sharply between the sub¬ 
lime and the banal and requires that the highest art treat 
the most sublime subjects. The mind of the West has al¬ 
ways been hierarchical: the cosmos has been understood as 
a great chain of Being, from highest to lowest, which has 
at the same time operated as a scale of values, from lowest 
to highest Painters were expected to portray the sublime 
scenes from the Gospel, great battles, or noble personages. 
The be g inn ing of genre painting in the seventeenth century 
was the first step toward what we now think of as modem 
painting, but it was not until the present century that the 
reversal of Western values was really accomplished. By 
now, the hierarchical scheme has been abolished altogether. 
Following Cezanne, the Cubists took as subjects for their 
most monumental paintings ordinary objects like tables, 
bottles, glasses, guitars. Now the painter dispenses with ob¬ 
jects altogether: the colored shape on his canvas is itself an 
absolute reality, perhaps more so than the imaginary scene, 
the great battle, which in a traditional canvas it might serve 
to depict. Thus we arrive at last at Fart brut (raw, cmde, 
or brute art), which seeks to abolish not only the ironclad 
distinction between the sublime and the banal but that be¬ 
tween the beautiful and the ugly as well. Says the painter 
Dubuffet, one of the more interesting cultivators of this 

The idea that there are beautiful objects and ugly 
objects, people endowed with beauty and others who 
cannot claim it, has surely no other foundation than con¬ 
vention-old poppycock—and I declare that convention 
unhealthy. . . . People have seen that I intend to sweep 
away everything we have been taught to consider—with¬ 
out question—as grace and beauty; but have overlooked 
my work to substitute another and vaster beauty, touch¬ 
ing all objects and beings, not excluding the most de¬ 
spised—and because of that, all the more exhilarating. 



... I would like people to look at my work as an 
enterprise for the rehabilitation of scorned values, and, 
in any case, make no mistake, a work of ardent cele¬ 
bration. . • . 

I am convinced that any table can be for each of 
us a landscape as inexhaustible as the whole Andes 
range. . . . 

I am struck by the high value, for a man, of a simple 
permanent fact, like the miserable vista on which the 
window of his room opens daily, that comes, with the 
passing of time, to have an important role in his life. I 
often think that the highest destination at which a paint¬ 
ing can aim is to take on that function in someone’s life. 

Such ideas seem scandalous to the Western traditionalist; 
they undermine the time-honored canon of beauty, counte¬ 
nance the most disorderly elements in existence, and strike 
against art itself. Yet they are ideas that might be easily 
understood by an Oriental. For the Oriental, opposites have 
never been put into separate watertight compartments as 
with the Westerner: as it is above, so it is below, in the 
East; the small is equal to the great, for amid the endless 
expanse of countless universes, each individual universe is 
as but a grain of sand on the shores of the Ganges, and a 
grain of sand is the equal of a universe. The lotus blooms 
in the mud; and generally the Oriental is as willing, in his 
indifference, to accept the ugly dross of existence as he is 
its beauty, where the Westerner might very well gag at the 
taste. We are not concerned here with the question of 
whether the West is now moving toward forms of thinking 
and feeling that are closer to what were once those of the 
East What is of concern to the philosopher is the fact that 
here, in art, we find so many signs of a break with the West¬ 
ern tradition, or at least with what had been thought to be 
the Western tradition; the philosopher must occupy him¬ 
self with this break if he is to recast the meaning of this 

The deflation, or flattening out, of values in Western art 
does not necessarily indicate an ethical nihilism. Quite the 


contrary; in opening our eyes to the rejected elements of 
existence, art may lead us to a more complete and less ar¬ 
tificial celebration of the world. In literature, again, the 
crucial example is Joyce's Ulysses . It was not a literary critic 
but a psychologist, C. G. Jung, who perceived that this 
book was non-Westem in spirit; he sees it as Oriental to 
such an extent that he recommends it as a much-needed 
bible to the white-skinned races. For Ulysses breaks with 
the whole tradition of Western sensibility and Western aes¬ 
thetics in showing each small object of Bloom's day—even 
the objects in his pocket, like a cake of soap—as capable 
at certain moments of taking on a transcendental impor¬ 
tance—or in being, at any rate, equal in value to those ob¬ 
jects to which men usually attribute transcendental impor¬ 
tance. Each grain of sand, Joyce seems to be saying (as 
the Oriental says), reflects the whole universe—and the 
Irish writer was not in the least a mystic; he simply takes 
experience as it comes, in the course of the single day he 
depicts in the novel. Any such break with tradition, where 
a serious reversal of values is involved, is of course dan¬ 
gerous, for the artist runs the risk of losing the safeguards 
that the experience of the past has erected for him. A good 
deal of modem art has clearly succumbed to this danger, 
and the result is disorder in the art and the artist; but the 
danger is the price that must be paid for any step forward 
by the human spirit. 

We have seen thus far that modem art, in its formal and 
structural qualities, is an art of breakdown and bold innova¬ 
tion, the expression of an epoch in which the accepted 
structures and norms of Western civilization are either in a 
state of dissolution or at least stand in question. But now, 
what about the content of this art? What does this content 
tell us about man? In what ways does it compel the phi¬ 
losopher to recast his traditional concept of man? 

Every age projects its own image of man into its art . The 
whole history of art confirms this proposition, indeed this 
history is itself but a succession of images of man. A Greek 
figure is not just a shape in stone but the image of man in 

6 o 


the light of which the Greeks lived. If you compare, feature 
by feature, the bust of a Roman patrician with the head of 
a medieval saint—as Andr6 Malraux has done with a spec¬ 
tacularly sharp eye in his Voices of Silence —you cannot ac¬ 
count in formal terms for the difference between them: the 
two heads stare at each other and cancel each other out; 
they give us two different images of the destiny and possi¬ 
bilities of being a man. The Roman head shows us the face 
of the imperium, of power and empire, the Christian the 
face of the Incarnation, the humility of the earthly trans¬ 
figured by the Divine. If we knew nothing at all about 
Taoism, we could still reconstruct from Chinese Sung paint¬ 
ing what the Taoist felt about man and nature. And so it 
goes. Whenever a civilization has lived in terms of a certain 
image of man, we can see this image in its art; sometimes 
the image is present even when it was never articulated in 
thought, the artist in this way anticipating the philosopher. 
With primitive or prehumanist art it is another matter; here 
we are presented with images that are much more primor¬ 
dial and abstract, and we are not able to discern in them 
the features of man. In those primitive cultures humanism 
had not yet come into existence. Man was still too close to 
his totem animal. Yet even in this art if we will, we can 
see the image—or non-image—of man in the light of which 
the primitives lived, in the archetypal images from which 
man's own individuated features have not yet emerged. 

And now, what about modem art? What image of man 
do we find in it? 

It is very suggestive that modem artists have discovered 
primitive art to be valid for them and have found a strange 
kinship with its forms. To be sure, when the modem artist 
uses primitive motifs, they mean for him something alto¬ 
gether different from what they meant for the primitive. 
One cannot undo thirty centuries of civilization. Neverthe¬ 
less, the extraordinarily vital attraction which primitive art 
now has for us is of no little significance. The tradition of 
Western humanism has faltered, become questionable; we 
are not so sure any more that we know what man is, and 
we do know in this century what blind forces can disturb 


or destroy his so-called humanity. Hence we respond to the 
archetypal images of prehumanist man, more abstract and 
impersonal than the features of man as we know him. 

The one thing that is not clear in modem art is its image 
of man. We can select a figure from Greek art, from the 
Renaissance, or the Middle Ages and say with some cer¬ 
tainty, “That is the image of man as the Greek, the medie¬ 
val, or Renaissance man conceived him.” I do not think we 
can find any comparably clear-cut image of man amid the 
bewildering thicket of modem art. And this is not because 
we are too dose to the period, as yet, to stand back and 
make such a selection. Rather, the variety of images is too 
great and too contradictory to coalesce into any single 
shape or form. May the reason why modem art offers us 
no clear-cut image of man not be that it already knows— 
whether or not it has brought this knowledge to conceptual 
expression—that man is a creature who transcends any 
image because he has no fixed essence or nature, as a stone 
or a tree have? 

A good deal of modem art has been concerned, in any 
case, simply with the destruction of the traditional image of 
man. Man is laid bare; more than that, he is flayed, cut 
up into bits, and his members strewn everywhere, like those 
of Osiris, with the reassembling of these scattered parts not 
even promised but only dumbly waited for. Our novels are 
increasingly concerned with the figure of the faceless and 
anonymous hero, who is at once everyman and nobody. 
Perhaps, again, it is Joyce who began this process of dis¬ 
section, and he can even evoke an echo of prehumanist art 
in the incident of Odysseus’ encounter with the blind giant 
Polyphemus, in which the Greek hero calls himself ou tis , 
Noman, the man without an identity. In the novels of Franz 
Kafka the hero is a cipher, an initial; a cipher, to be sure, 
with an overwhelming passion to find out his individual 
place and responsibility—things which are not given to him 
a priori and which he dies without ever findin g out. The 
existence of this cipher who does not discover his own 
meaning is marginal, in the sense that he is always beyond 
the boundary of what is secure, stable, meaningful, or- 



darned. Modem literature tends to be a literature of “ex¬ 
treme situations,” to use Jaspers’ expression. It shows us 
man at the end of his tether, cut off from the consolations 
of all that seems so solid and earthly in the daily round of 
life—that seems so as long as this round is accepted without 

Naturally enough, this faceless hero is everywhere ex¬ 
posed to Nothingness. When, by chance or fate, we fall 
into an extreme situation—one, that is, on the far side of 
what is normal, routine, accepted, traditional, safeguarded 
—we are threatened by the void. The solidity of the so- 
called real world evaporates under the pressure of our sit¬ 
uation. Our being reveals itself as much more porous, much 
less substantial than we had thought it—it is like those 
cryptic human figures in modem sculpture that are full of 
holes or gaps. Nothingness has, in fact, become one of the 
chief themes in modem art and literature, whether it is di¬ 
rectly named as such or merely drifts through the work as 
the ambiance in which the human figures live, move, and 
have their being. We are reminded of the elongated and 
attenuated figures of the sculptor Giacometti, figures that 
seem to be invaded by the surrounding void. “Some live in 
it and never know it” writes Hemingway in the story “A 
Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” which presents in its six or 
seven pages a vision of Nothing that is perhaps as powerful 
as any in modem art; and he continues, “It was aU a noth¬ 
ing , and man is a nothing too” The example of Hemingway 
is valuable here, for he is not an artist inspired by intellec¬ 
tual themes; quite the contrary, he is a reporter and a poet 
intent on reporting what it is he really sees in experience, 
and what he has seen and reports to us in this story is the 
Nothing that sometimes rises up before the eyes of human 
beings.* A story by Sartre on the same subject would be 
much more suspect to us: we would have reason to believe 
that the Existentialist writer was loading the dice intellec¬ 
tually, reporting on experience out of a previous philosophi¬ 
cal commitment. But to reject Hemingway’s vision of the 

* For a more detailed treatment of the theme of this story see 
Appendices, pp. 283-286. 



Nothing, of Nothingness, might well be to close our eyes to 
our own experience. 

It is worth emphasizing, once again, that the vision of 
Nothingness with which modem art presents us does ex¬ 
press a real encounter, one that is part of the historical 
destiny of the time. Creative artists do not produce such a 
vision out of nowhere. Nor in general do audiences or read¬ 
ers fail to respond to it. When a play Waiting for Godot, 
by an Irish disciple of Joyce’s, Samuel Beckett—a play in 
which Nothingness circulates through every line from be¬ 
ginning to end—runs for more than sixteen months to packed 
houses in the capitals of Europe, we can only conclude that 
something is at work in the European mind against which 
its traditions cannot wholly guard it and which it will have 
to live through to the bitter end. Surely the audience at 
Beckett’s play recognized something of its own experience 
in what it saw on the stage, some echo, however veiled, of 
its own emptiness and, in Heidegger’s phrase, its "waiting 
for God.” It is not only stuffy and pompous of the Philistine 
to reject these responses in artist and in audience, but dan¬ 
gerously unintelligent, for he loses thereby the chance of 
finding out where he himself stands historically. 

An epoch, as we have seen, reveals itself in its religion, 
its social forms, but perhaps most profoundly or, at any 
rate, lucidly in its art. Through modem art our time reveals 
itself to itself, or at least to those persons who are willing to 
look at their own age dispassionately and without the blind¬ 
ness of preconceptions, in the looking glass of its art. In our 
epoch existential philosophy has appeared as an intellectual 
expression of the time, and this philosophy exhibits numer¬ 
ous points of contact with modem art. The more closely we 
examine the two together, the stronger becomes the impres¬ 
sion that existential philosophy is the authentic intellectual 
expression of our time, as modem art is the expression of 
the time in terms of image and intuition. 

Not only do the two treat similar themes, but both start 
off from the sense of crisis and of a break in the Western 
tradition. Modem art has discarded the traditional assump- 



tions of rational form. The modem artist sees man not as 
the rational animal, in the sense handed down to the West 
by the Greeks, but as something else. Reality, too, reveals 
itself to the artist not as the Great Chain of Being, which 
the tradition of Western rationalism had declared intelligi¬ 
ble down to its smallest link and in its totality, but as much 
more refractory: as opaque, dense, concrete, and in the end 
inexplicable. At the limits of reason one comes face to face 
with the meaningless; and the artist today shows us the ab¬ 
surd, the inexplicable, the meaningless in our daily life. 

This break with the Western tradition imbues both phi¬ 
losophy and art with the sense that everything is question¬ 
able, problematic. Our time, said Max Scheler, is the first 
in which man has become thoroughly and completely prob¬ 
lematic to himself. Hence the themes that obsess both mod¬ 
em art and existential philosophy are the alienation and 
strangeness of man in his world; the contradictoriness, fee¬ 
bleness, and contingency of human existence; the central 
and overwhelming reality of time for man who has lost his 
anchorage in the eternal. 

The testimony art brings to these themes is all the more 
convincing in that it is spontaneous; it does not spring from 
ideas or from any intellectual program. That modem art 
which is most successful and powerful moves us because 
we see in it the artist subordinate (as must always be the 
case in art) to his vision. And since we recognize that man’s 
being is historical through and through, we must take this 
vision of modem art as a sign that the ima ge of man which 
has been at the center of our tradition till now must be 
re-evaluated and recast. 

There is a painful irony in the new image of man that is 
emerging, however fragmentarily, from the art of our time. 
An observer from another planet might well be struck by 
the disparity between the enormous power which our age 
has concentrated in its external life and the inner poverty 
which our art seeks to expose to view. This is, after all, the 
age that has discovered and harnessed atomic energy, that 
has made airplanes that fly faster than the sun, and that 
will, in a few years (perhaps in a few months), have 



atomic-powered planes which can fly through outer space 
and not need to return to mother earth for weeks. What 
cannot man dol He has greater power now than Prometheus 
or Icarus or any of those daring mythical heroes who were 
later to succumb to the disaster of pride. But if an observer 
from Mars were to turn his attention from these external 
appurtenances of power to the shape of man as revealed in 
our novels, plays, painting, and sculpture, he would find 
there a creature full of holes and gaps, faceless, riddled with 
doubts and negations, starkly finite. 

However disconcerting this violent contrast between 
power and impoverishment, there is something a little con¬ 
soling in it for anyone who is intimidated by excessive ma¬ 
terial power, as there is in learning that a dictator is a 
drunkard or marked by some other ordinary failing which 
makes him seem a trifle more human. If we are to redeem 
any part of our world from the brute march of power, we 
may have to begin as modem art does by exalting some of 
the humble and dirty little comers of existence. On another 
level, however, this violent contrast is frightening, for it rep¬ 
resents a dangerous lagging of man behind his own works; 
and in this lag lies the terror of the atomic bomb which 
hangs over us like impending night. Here surely the ordi¬ 
nary man begins to catch a fleeting glimpse of that Noth¬ 
ingness which both artist and philosopher have begun in 
our tim e to take seriously. The bomb reveals the dreadful 
and total contingency of human existence. Existentialism is 
the philosophy of the atomic age. 

Tn examining our time, we have seen everywhere the 
s ig ns and omens of a break either with or within the West¬ 
ern tradition; and since Existentialism is concerned with 
these portents and is indeed one itself, we had better turn 
back now and cast an eye on this tradition in order to see 
how deeply the roots of Existentialism extend into it. 


Chapter Four 

In the celebrated chapter with this same tide, in his Culr 
ture and Anarchy, a book about the contemporary situation 
in nineteenth-century England that has much to say to us 
even today, Matthew Arnold writes: 

We show, as a nation, laudable energy and persistence in 
walking according to the best light we have, but are not 
quite careful enough, perhaps, to see that our light be 
not darkness. This is only another version of the old story 
that energy is our strong point and favorable character¬ 
istic, rather than intelligence. But we may give to this 
idea a more general form still, in which it will have a yet 
larger range of application. We may regard this energy 
driving at practice, this paramount sense of the obliga¬ 
tion of duty, self-control, and work, this earnestness in 
going manfully with the best light we have, as one force. 
And we may regard the intelligence driving at those ideas 
which are, after all, the basis of right practice, the ardent 
sense for all the new and cha ngin g combinations of them 
which man’s development brings with it, the indomitable 
impulse to know and adjust them perfecdy, as another 
force. And these two forces we may regard as in some 
sense rivals—rivals not by the necessity of their own na¬ 
ture, but as exhibited in man and his history—and rivals 
dividing the empire of the world between them. And to 
give these forces names from the two races of men who 
have supplied the most splendid manifestations of them, 



we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism 
and Hellenism. Hebraism and Hellenism—between these 
two points of influence moves our world. At one time it 
feels more powerfully the attraction of one of them, at 
another time of the other; and it ought to be, though it 
never is, evenly and happily balanced between them. 

Hebraism sometimes seems for Arnold to wear too markedly 
the stiff bewhiskered face of a British mid-Victorian mem¬ 
ber of the Dissenting Churches. We have learned a good 
deal about the Hebraic mind, since his day, and our picture 
of it will be more complicated. Nevertheless, it is well to 
begin with this genial and simple passage from Arnold, 
which so rightly perceives the distinction between the two 
types and sets forth their long historical battle in such clear- 
cut terms. 

The distinction, as Arnold so lucidly states it, arises from 
the difference between doing and knowing. The Hebrew is 
concerned with practice, the Greek with knowledge. Right 
conduct is the ultimate concern of the Hebrew, right think¬ 
ing that of the Greek. Duty and strictness of conscience are 
the paramount things in life for the Hebrew; for the Greek, 
the spontaneous and luminous play of the intelligence. The 
Hebrew thus extols the moral virtues as the substance and 
meaning of life; the Greek subordinates them to the intellec¬ 
tual virtues, and Arnold rightly observes: “The moral vir¬ 
tues are with Aristotle but the porch and access to the in¬ 
tellectual, and with these last is blessedness.’’ So far all 
this is quite simple and dear: the contrast is between prac¬ 
tice and theory, between the moral man and the theoretical 
or intellectual man. But then Arnold goes on to make an¬ 
other point, which is somehow outside the framework with 
which he started: 

To get rid of one’s ignorance, to see things as they are, 
and by seeing them as they are to see them in their 
beauty, is the simple and attractive ideal which Hellen¬ 
ism holds out before human nature; and from the sim¬ 
plicity and charm of this idea, Hellenism, and human life 
in the hands of Hellenism, is invested with a kind of aerial 



ease, clearness, and radiancy; they are full of what we 
call sweetness and light. Difficulties are kept out of view, 
and the beauty and rationalness of the ideal have all our 

While Arnold admires this ideal of sweetness and light, he 
nevertheless feels that it may not take into consideration 
one troubling aspect of the human condition, and he goes 
on to quote a remark that may or may not have been made 
by Thomas Carlyle: 

“Socrates,” this saying goes, “is terribly at ease in 
Zion." Hebraism—and here is the source of its wonderful 
strength—has always been severely preoccupied with an 
awful sense of the impossibility of being at ease in Zion; 
of the difficulties which oppose themselves to man’s pur¬ 
suit or attainment of that perfection of which Socrates 
talks so hopefully, and, as from this point of view one 
might almost say, so glibly. It is all very well to talk of 
getting rid of one’s ignorance, of seeing things in their 
reality, seeing them in their beauty; but how is this to be 
done when there is something which thwarts and spoils 
all our efforts? 

This something is sin. 

What Arnold perceives here is that deep within Biblical 
man lurks a certain uneasiness , which is not to be found in 
the conceptions of man given us by the great Greek philoso¬ 
phers. This uneasiness points toward another, and more 
central, region of human existence than the contrast be¬ 
tween doing and knowing, morality and reason. To be sure, 
Arnold seeks to tie in this uneasiness of Biblical man with 
his main thesis, which is the distinction between moral 
practice and intellectual culture, by introducing the idea of 
sin. But the sinfulness that man experiences in the Bible— 
as in the Psalms or the Book of Job—cannot be confined to 
a supposed compartment of the individual’s being that has 
to do with his moral acts. This sinfulness pervades the 
whole being of man: it is indeed man’s being, insofar as in 
his feebleness and finiteness as a creature he stands naked 



in the presence of God. This idea of man’s finiteness takes 
us beyond the distinctions of practice and theory, morality 
and knowledge, toward the center from which all such dis¬ 
tinctions stem. 

It is at this center that we must begin, in our rethinking 
of Arnold’s distinction between Hebraism and Hellenism. 
We have learned a good deal not only about Hebraic 
thought but about the Greeks since Arnold’s time, and we 
shall have to qualify his picture of the latter’s aerial light¬ 
ness and ease. The radiant and harmonious Greek Arnold 
depicted he had inherited from eighteenth-century classi¬ 
cism. We know considerably more now about Greek pessi¬ 
mism and the negation of life that it brought with it. We 
know more about the Orphic religions, which had their own 
powerful sense of the sinful and fallen state of man, and 
which exerted such an influence upon Plato. When Plato 
says that the body is a tomb and that to philosophize is 
to learn to die, he is not just tossing off a few idle rhetorical 
figures. From his Orphic and Pythagorean sources we can 
see that the whole impulse of philosophy for Plato arises 
from an ardent search for deliverance from the evils of the 
world and the curse of time. The Greeks did not produce 
their tragic plays out of nothing, as Nietzsche was almost 
the first to observe less than a century ago. Greek tragedy 
comes out of an acute sense of the suffering and evil of life. 

Nevertheless, Arnold is fundamentally right in his distinc¬ 
tion between Hebrew and Greek, as is shown by the gifts 
bestowed on humanity by the two races: the Greeks gave 
us science and philosophy; the Hebrews gave us the Law. 
No other people—not the Chinese, not the Hindus—pro¬ 
duced theoretical science, and its discovery or invention by 
the Greeks has been what has distinguished Western civili¬ 
zation from the other civilizations of the globe. In the same 
way, the uniqueness of Western religion is due to its He¬ 
braic source, and the religious history of the West is the 
long story of the varying fortunes and mutations of the 
spirit of Hebraism. 




The Law, however, is not really at the center of Hebra¬ 
ism, At the center lies that which is the foundation and the 
basis of the Law, and without which the Law, even in the 
most Pharisaical tradition, would be but an empty shell. 
Here we have to think beyond Arnold. To be sure, the Law 
—the absolutely binding quality of its ritual and command¬ 
ments—has been what has held the Jewish c ommun i t y to¬ 
gether over its centuries of suffering and prevented this peo¬ 
ple from extermination. But if we go back to the Hebraic 
sources, to man as he is revealed to us in the Bible, we see 
that some thing more primitive and more fundamental lies 
at the basis of the moral law. We have to learn to reread 
the Book of Job in order to see this—reread it in a way that 
takes us beyond Arnold and into our own time, reread it 
with an historical sense of the primitive or primary mode 
of existence of the people who gave expression to this work. 
For earlier man, the outcome of the Book of Job was not 
such a foregone conclusion as it is for us later readers, for 
whom centuries of familiarity and forgetfulness have dulled 
the violence of the confrontation between man and God 
that is central to the narrative. For earlier man, seeing for 
the first time beyond the routine co mm a n d m ents of his re¬ 
ligion, there was a Promethean excitement in Job’s coming 
face to face with his Creator and de man di n g justification. 
The stage comparable to this, with the Greeks, is the emer¬ 
gence of critical and philosophical reflection upon the gods 
and their ways, the first use of rational consciousness as an 
instrument to examine a religion that had been up to that 
time traditional and ritualistic. The Hebrew, however, pro¬ 
ceeds not by the way of reason but by the confrontation of 
the whole man. Job, in the fullness and violence of his pas¬ 
sion with the unknowable and overwhelming God. And the 
final solution for Job lies not in the rational resolution of 
the problem, any more than it ever does in life, but in a 
change and conversion of the whole man. The relation be¬ 
tween Job and God is a relation between an I and a Thou, 
to use Martin Bubers terms. Such a relation demands that 



each being confront the other in his completeness; it is not 
the confrontation of two rational minds each demanding an 
explanation that will satisfy reason. The relation between 
Job and God is on the level of existence and not of reason. 
Rational doubt, in the sense of the term that the later philo¬ 
sophic tradition of the West has made familiar to us, never 
enters Job’s mind, even in the very paroxysm of his revolt. 
His relation to God remains one of faith from start to finish, 
though, to be sure, this faith takes on the varying shapes of 
revolt, anger, dismay, and confusion. Job says, “Though he 
slay me , yet will 1 trust in him ” but he adds what is usually 
not brought to our attention as emphatically as the first part 
of his saying: “But I will maintain my own ways before 
him.” Job retains his own identity (“his own ways”) in con¬ 
fronting the Creator before whom he is as Nothing. Job in 
the many shades and turnings of his faith is close to those 
primitive peoples who may break, revile, and spit upon the 
image of a god who is no longer favorable. Similarly, in 
Psalm 89 David rebukes Yahweh for all the tribulations 
that He has poured upon His people, and there can be no 
doubt that we are here at the stage in history where faith is 
so real that it permits man to call God to account. It is a 
stage close to the primitive, but also a considerable step be¬ 
yond it: for the Hebrew had added a new element, faith, 
and so internalized what was simply the primitive’s anger 
against his god. When faith is full, it dares to express its 
anger, for faith is the openness of the whole man toward 
his God, and therefore must be able to encompass all hu¬ 
man modes of being. 

Faith is trust—in the sense, at least initially, in which in 
everyday life we say we trust so-and-so. As trust it is the 
relation between one individual and another. Faith is trust 
before it is belief—belief in the articles, creeds, and tenets of 
a Church with which later religious history obscures this 
primary meaning of the word. As trust, in the sense of the 
opening up of one being toward another, faith does not in¬ 
volve any philosophical problem about its position relative 
to faith and reason. That problem comes up only later when 
faith has become, so to speak, propositional, when it has 



expressed itself in statements, creeds, systems. Faith as a 
concrete mode of being of the human person precedes 
faith as the intellectual assent to a proposition, just as 
truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the 
truth of any proposition. Moreover, this trust that em¬ 
braces a man's anger and dismay, his bones and his bowels 
—the whole man, in short—does not yet permit any separa¬ 
tion of soul from body, of reason from man's irrational other 
half. In Job and the Psalms man is very much a man of 
flesh and blood, and his being as a creature is described 
time and again in images that are starkly physical: 

Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast made me as 
the clay; and wilt thou bring me into the dust again? 

Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me 
like cheese? 

Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh, and hast 
fenced me with bones and sinews. 

And when Psalm 22 speaks of the sense of abandonment 
and dereliction, it uses not the high, rarefied language of 
introspection but the most powerful cry of the physical: 

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? . . . 

Thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst 
make me hope when I was upon my mother's breasts. 

I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God 
from my mother’s belly . . . 

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out 
of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of 
my bowels. 

My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my 
tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me 
into the dust of death. 

Protestantism later sought to revive this face-to-face con¬ 
frontation of man with his God, but could produce only a 
pallid replica of the simplicity, vigor, and wholeness of this 
ori gina l Biblical faith. Protestant man had thrown off the 
husk of his body. He was a creature of spirit and inward- 



ness, but no longer the man of flesh and belly, bones and 
blood, that we find in the Bible. Protestant man would 
never have dared confront God and demand an accounting 
of His ways. That era in history had long since passed by 
the time we come to the Reformation. 

As a man of flesh and blood. Biblical man was very much 
bound to the earth. “Remember, I beseech thee, that thou 
hast made me as the clay; and wilt thou bring me into the 
dust again?" Bound to the dust, he was bound to death: 
a creature of time, whose being was temporal through and 
through. The idea of eternity—eternity for man—does not 
bulk large in the Bible beside the power and frequency of 
the images of man’s mortality. God is the Everlasting, who, 
though He meets man face to face, is altogether beyond 
human ken and comparison; while man, who is as Nothing 
before his Creator, is like all other beings of the dust a 
creature of a day, whose temporal substance is repeatedly 
compared to wind and shadow. 

Man that is bom of woman is of few days, and full 
of trouble. 

He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he 
fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. 

Hebraism contains no eternal realm of essences, which 
Greek philosophy was to fabricate, through Plato, as af¬ 
fording the intellectual deliverance from the evil of time. 
Such a realm of eternal essences is possible only for a de¬ 
tached intellect, one who, in Plato’s phrase, becomes a 
“spectator of all time and all existence." This ideal of the 
philosopher as the highest human type—the theoretical in¬ 
tellect who from the vantage point of eternity can survey all 
time and existence—is altogether foreign to the Hebraic con¬ 
cept of the man of faith who is passionately committed to 
his own mortal being. Detac h ment was for the Hebrew an 
impermissible state of mind, a vice rather than a virtue; or 
rather it was something that Biblical man was not yet even 
able to conceive, since he had not reached the level of 
rational abstraction of the Greek. His existence was too 
earth-bound, too laden with the oppressive images of mor- 



tality, to permit him to experience the philosopher’s detach¬ 
ment. The notion of the immortality of the soul as an intel¬ 
lectual substance (and that that immortality might even be 
demonstrated rationally) had not dawned upon the mind of 
Biblical man. If he hoped at all to escape mortality it was 
on the basis of personal trust that his Creator might raise 
him once again from the dust. 

All of this carries us beyond Arnold’s simple contrasting 
of moral man with intellectual man, though his basic dis¬ 
tinction is left intact and in fact deepened. To sum up: 

(1) The ideal man of Hebraism is the man of faith; for 
Hellenism, at least as it came to ultimate philosophic ex¬ 
pression in its two greatest philosophers, Plato and Aris¬ 
totle, the ideal man is the man of reason, the philosopher 
who as a spectator of all time and existence must rise above 

(2) The man of faith is the concrete man in his whole¬ 
ness. Hebraism does not raise its eyes to the universal and 
abstract; its vision is always of the concrete, particular, in¬ 
dividual man. The Greeks, on the other hand, were the first 
thinkers in history; they discovered the universal, the ab¬ 
stract and timeless essences, forms, and Ideas. The intoxica¬ 
tion of this discovery (which marked nothing less than the 
earliest emergence and differentiation of the rational func¬ 
tion) led Plato to hold that man lives only insofar as he 
lives in the eternal. 

(3) There follows for the Greek the ideal of detachment 
as the path of wisdom which only the philosopher can 
tread. The word “theory” derives from the Greek verb 
theatai, which means to behold, to see, and is the root of 
the word theater. At a theater we are spectators of an ac¬ 
tion in which we ourselves are not involved. Analogously, 
the man of theory, the philosopher or pure scientist, looks 
upon existence with detachment, as we behold spectacles 
at the theater; and in this way he exists, to use Kierkegaard’s 
expression, only upon the aesthetic level of existence. 

The Hebraic emphasis is on commitment , the passionate 
involvement of man with his own mortal being (at once 
flesh and spirit), with his offspring, family, tribe, and 



God; a man abstracted from such involvements would be, 
to Hebraic thought, but a pale shade of the actual ex isti n g 
human person. 

(4) The eternal is a rather shadowy concept for the 
Hebrew except as it is embodied in the person of the un¬ 
knowable and terrible God. For the Greek eternity is some¬ 
thing to which man has ready and continuous access 
through his intellect. 

(5) The Greek invented logic. His definition of man as 
the rational animal is literally as the logical animal, to zoon 
logikon.; or even more literally the animal who has lan¬ 
guage, since logic derives from the verb legein , which 
means to say, speak, discourse. Man is the animal of con¬ 
nected logical discourse. 

For the Hebrew the status of the intellect is rather typi¬ 
fied by the silly and proud babbling of Job’s friends, whose 
arguments never touch the core of the matter. Intellect and 
logic are the pride of fools and do not touch the ultimate 
issues of life, which transpire at a depth that language can 
never reach, the ultimate depth of faith. Says Job at the end 
of the Book: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the 
ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.” 

(6) The Greek pursues beauty and goodness as things 
that are identical or at least always coincident; in fact he 
gives them a single name, the beautiful-and-good, to kalo- 
kagathia. The Hebraic sense of sin, to which Matthew 
Arnold alludes, is too much aware of the galling and re¬ 
fractory aspects of human existence to make this easy iden¬ 
tification of the good and the beautiful. The sense of the 
sinfulness of Biblical man is the sense of his radical finitude 
in its aspect of imperfection. Hence his good must some¬ 
times wear an ugly face, just as beauty for him may be the 
shining mask of evil and corruption. 

It is unnecessary to extend this list. What is important 
is to make clear the central intuition that informs each of 
these two views of man. The reader probably has already 
divined that the features of Hebraic man are those which 
existential philosophy has attempted to exhume and bring 
to the reflective consciousness of our time, a time in which 



as a matter of historical happening the Hebraic religion 
(which means Western religion) no longer retains its un¬ 
conditional validity for the mass of mankind. 

This sketch of a comparison perhaps tilts the balance a 
little too heavily on the side of Hebraism. It is necessary, 
however, to correct the impression left by Matthew Arnold 
(and he is here a spokesman for a view that is still preva¬ 
lent) that the main content of Hebraism is its energy and 
will toward morality. We have to insist on a noetic content 
in Hebraism: Biblical man too had his knowledge, though 
it is not the intellectual knowledge of the Greek. It is not 
the kind of knowledge that man can have through reason 
alone, or perhaps not through reason at all; he has it rather 
through body and blood, bones and bowels, through trust 
and anger and confusion and love and fear; through his 
passionate adhesion in faith to the Being whom he can never 
intellectually know. This kind of knowledge a man has 
only through living, not reasoning, and perhaps in the end 
he cannot even say what it is he knows; yet it is knowledge 
all the same, and Hebraism at its source had this knowl¬ 
edge. To be sure, we have stacked the cards somewhat by 
considering Hellenism more or less as it came to be ex¬ 
pressed by the philosophers, and particularly the philoso¬ 
pher Plato; Hellas also produced the tragic poets Aeschylus 
and Sophocles, who had another kind of knowledge of life. 
But it was Greece that produced philosophy, logic, science 
—and also produced Plato, a figure who sums up all the 
ambiguity of Hellenism as it circles round the momentous 
issue of reason and the irrational in human life. 


The Anglo-American philosopher Whitehead has re¬ 
marked that “Twenty-five hundred years of Western phi¬ 
losophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato.” Allowing for 
the disparaging irony of the word “footnotes,” we can take 
this statement as literally accurate. The themes, the ques¬ 
tions, and even to a great extent the terms of all subsequent 
Western philosophy lie in germ in the writings of Plato. All 



later philosophers betray a filial dependence on Plato- 
even Aristotle, the great hero of all anti-Platonists. And 
while existential philosophy is a radical effort to break with 
this Platonic tradition, yet paradoxically there is an existen¬ 
tial aspect to Plato's thought. Such is the richness and 
ambiguity of Plato as man and philosopher. 

Plato began his philosophic career as the result of a con¬ 
version. This is surely an existential beginning. He had as¬ 
pired to be a dramatic poet, the biographer tells us, but 
after a youthful encounter with Socrates he burned all his 
manuscripts and dedicated himself to the search for wisdom 
to which Socrates had given his life. Plato was to be en¬ 
gaged thereafter, for the rest of his life, in a war with the 
poets that was first and foremost a war with the poet in 
himself. The steps in Plato’s career, after that fateful en¬ 
counter with Socrates, enact a progress, as we shall see 
later, that might have the title: Death of a Foet. Yet the 
poet never quite dies in Plato—revile him as he does—and 
at the end he returns to a great myth of creation, the 
Timaeus , though it is told as an allegory of science and 
metaphysics. His career is the victory of reason, or the 
struggle for that victory, over the poetic and mythic func¬ 
tions, and it is all the more remarkable in that it took place 
in a man who was so richly endowed with the poetic gift. 

But this is more than a highly dramatic bit of personal 
biography: it is an event of the greatest significance in 
Western history, as it could only be in a man of Plato’s 
greatness. In Plato rational consciousness as such becomes, 
for the first time in human history, a differentiated psychic 
function. (Perhaps Socrates achieved this before him, but 
all we know of Socrates as a philosopher is through Plato’s 
writings.) The momentousness of this emergence of reason 
can be gauged by setting Greece over against the compara¬ 
bly high civilizations of India and China. These latter had 
a great flowering of sages at a time dose to that of the pre- 
Socratics in Greece; but neither in India nor in China was 
reason fully isolated and distinguished—that is, differen¬ 
tiated—from the rest of man’s psychic being, from his feeling 
and intuition. Oriental man remains intuitive, not rational. 



Great sages like Buddha and Lao-tse rose above the mythic, 
but they did not become apostles of reason. The lifting of 
reason fully out of the primeval waters of the unconscious 
is a Greek achievement And from the differentiation West¬ 
ern civilization takes on, subsequently, the character that 
distinguishe s it from the civilizations of the Orient Science 
itself, a peculiarly Western product, became possible only 
through this differentiation of reason and its exaltation as 
the crowning human power. 

This emergence of reason that we can see taking place 
in the Platonic writings was a momentous historical event 
that spanned Plato’s own lifetime. We can gauge this span 
by marking out at its beginning two thinkers earlier than 
Plato, Heraclitus and Parmenides, who were flourishing 
around 480 b.c., and at its end the achievement of Plato’s 
pupil, Aristotle, who really carried the rational ideal 
sketched by Plato in the Later Academy to its culmination. 
In 399 b.c. Socrates was executed for nothing less than the 
crime of rationalism—an act of reason that destroyed, so 
the conservative Athenians thought, the gods of the tribe. 
These dates can be marked as points on a curve, and this 
curve is one of the most significant ever traced by man in 
his history. From 480 b.c., the time of Heraclitus and 
Parmenides, to the death of Aristotle in 322a b.c. is little 
more than a century and a half. In that century and a half 
man enters history as the rational animal. 

Parmenides and Heraclitus were visionaries and seers. 
Parmenides wrote in verse, and his poem opens by describ¬ 
ing itself as the account of a vision vouchsafed by the god¬ 
dess, who has taken the poet in her chariot beyond the 
portals of the day and night. Heraclitus’ sayings are dark 
and oracular, and they are meant to be taken as oracles— 
visionary disclosures of the real. The Greek word for “I 
know,” oida, is the perfect of the verb "to see” and means 
"I have seen.” He who knows is the man who has seen, 
who has had a vision. For earlier mankind, the sage, the 
wise man, was the reader of oracles, of dreams and entrails, 
the fortuneteller, the shaman. And he was the poet who, 
in giving expression to the "big dreams” of the tribe, voiced 



its hidden, its deepest and furthest wisdom. At the end of 
the century and a half in which Plato and Aristotle lived, 
this ideal sage had been transformed into the man of pure j 
intellect, whose highest embodiment was to be found in the ; 
rational philosopher and the theoretical scientist. The vast I 
intuitive visions of nature, as found in the pre-Socratic 
thinkers, gave way, in Aristotle, to the sobriety of science. 

We are so used today to taking our rational conscious- ! 
ness for granted, in the ways of our daily life we are so ; 
immersed in its operations, that it is hard at first for us to | 
imagine how momentous was this historical happening j 
among the Greeks. Steeped as our age is in the ideas of I 
evolution, we have not yet become accustomed to the idea 
that consciousness itself is something that has evolved 
through long centuries and that even today, with us, is still | 
evolving. Only in this century, through modem psychology, j 
have we learned how precarious a hold consciousness may 
exert upon life, and we are more acutely aware therefore 
what a precious deal of history, and of effort, was required | 
for its elaboration, and what creative leaps were necessary 
at certain times to extend it beyond its habitual territory. 
We have seen the history of philosophy written as social j 
history, or as economic history, or interpreted from any 
number of sociological points of view, but we have yet to j 
grasp fully the history of philosophy as part of the psychic j 
evolution of mankind. But of course the concept of evolu¬ 
tion cannot here be interpreted in the simple and unilinear j 
fashion of nineteenth-century thought, as in Hegel and 
Spencer, but rather in its full concreteness and ambiguity, j 
as simultaneously gain and loss, advance and regress. 

Nothing better illustrates this last point than the Platonic j 
celebration of reason. The Greeks’ discovery represents an : 
immense and necessary step forward by mankind, but also i 
a loss, for the pristine wholeness of man’s being is thereby 
sundered or at least pushed into the background. Consider j 
thus the famous myth of the soul in the Phaedrus: the j 
driver of the chariot, reason, holds the reins of white steeds 
and of black—the white steeds representing the spirited or 
emotional part of man, which is more docile to the dictates 


of reason, the black and unruly steeds representing the ap¬ 
petites or desires, which have to be whipped into line by 
the charioteer. Whips and reins convey only the idea of 
coercion and restraint; and the charioteer alone wears a hu¬ 
man face while the rest of man, the non-rational part, is 
represented in animal form. Reason, as the divine part of 
man, is separated, is indeed of another nature, from the 
animal within him. We are a long distance here from an¬ 
other symbol of light and dark which early mankind, this 
time the Chinese, handed down to us: the famous diagram 
of the forces of yin and yang, in which the light and the 
dark lie down beside each other within the same circle, the 
dark area penetrated by a spot of light and the light by a 
spot of dark, to symbolize that each must borrow from the 
other, that the light has need of the dark, and conversely, 
in order for either to be complete. In Plato’s myth first ap¬ 
pears that cleavage between reason and the irrational that 
it has been the long burden of the West to carry, until the 
dualism makes itself felt in most violent form within modem 

The same superhuman, or inhuman, exaltation of reason 
can be seen in another of the Platonic myths, the celebrated 
allegory of the cave in the Republic . The myth begins with 
a very grim picture of the human condition as it actually 
is: Men sit in the darkness of a cave, in chains, their backs 
to the light and able to see only the shadows of objects cast 
on the wall they face. One of the prisoners becomes free, 
turns around to see the objects of which he had previously 
seen only the shadows, and the light itself that casts the 
shadows; he may even progress to the mouth of the cave 
and see the sun beyond. 

This is a myth of man’s progress from darkness to light, 
ignorance to knowledge, from dereliction to salvation. As 
a young man, we are told, Plato had studied the doctrines 
of Cratylus, a follower of Heraclitus who had taught that 
all things were in flux and that there was no escape any¬ 
where from death and change; the young Plato, tormented 
by this vision, desired at all costs a refuge in the eternal 
from the insecurities and ravages of time. Hence the 



enormous attraction for him of the science of mathematics, 
which opens up a realm of eternal truths. Here at least, in 
pure thought, man can find an escape from time. Hence too 
the tremendous emotional force for him of the theory of 
eternal forms or Ideas, since these latter were an everlasting 
realm to which man has access. We have to see Plato’s 
rationalism, not as a cool scientific project such as a later 
century of the European Enlightenment might set for itself, 
but as a kind of passionately religious doctrine—a theory 
that promised man salvation from the things he had feared 
most from the earliest days, from death and time. The ex¬ 
traordinary emphasis Plato put upon reason is itself a reli¬ 
gious impulse. 

Light and darkness are universal human symbols for the 
contrasting states of redemption and dereliction. You will 
find them in all cultures—in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and 
Christian thought. The sage or saint is always the enlight¬ 
ened man, he who walks in the light. Plato’s myth, taken 
simply as a story, could be adopted by any of these reli¬ 
gions. The use that Plato makes of it, however, is alto¬ 
gether his own, and strikingly different from the use any 
religion has made of these symbols. For when he has fin¬ 
ished the story, Plato goes on to explain it as an allegory: 
the progress from the cave into the light, in the myth, will 
correspond to the actual stages to be followed in the educa¬ 
tion of the guardians of the state, and the chief content of 
this education, its sole content from the age of twenty to 
thirty-five, is to be mathematics and dialectic. At this point 
we may imagine a great Eastern sage such as Buddha or 
Lao-tse looking somewhat askance: the enlightenment they 
sought, which was the redemption of the individual, would 
not have come through any such severely intellectual and 
logical training. And one’s own observation of professional 
mathematicians hardly supports the view that they are the 
most whole and intact psychological specimens mankind 
has to offer. In Plato’s extraordinary emphasis upon mathe¬ 
matics we see the vestiges of Pythagoreanism, in which 
mathematics has been given a sacred, a religious status. 

Behind Plato’s emphasis upon mathematics lies his theory 


of Ideas: the “really real” objects in the universe, ta ontos 
onto, are the universals or Ideas. Particular things are half 
real and half unreal—real only insofar as they participate in 
the eternal universals. The universal is fully real because 
it is eternal; the fleeting and changing particular has only 
a shadowy kind of reality because it passes and is then as 
if it had never been. Humanity, the universal, is more real 
than any individual man. This is the crucial emphasis of 
Platonism as it was passed on to all subsequent philosophy 
and that against which contemporary existential philosophy 
is in rebellion. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the nineteenth 
century were the first to reverse this Platonic scale of values 
and to establish the individual, the single one, precisely in 
the way in which he is an exception to the universal norm, 
as taking precedence over the universal. 

Everything else in Plato follows from his identification of 
true Being, of “real reality,” with the Ideas. Since art, for 
example, deals with the objects of the senses, therefore with 
particulars, it deals only with shadows and is itself a form 
of untruth. Philosophy and theoretical science have a 
higher value than art because in them alone truth is real¬ 
ized, as it is not in the arts. The earlier meaning of truth, 
which embraced also the utterances of the poets, has here 
been shifted to make it a purely intellectual concept. Psy¬ 
chologically speaking, the significance of Plato's theory of 
Ideas is to transfer the weight of emphasis from sensory 
reality to a supersensible reality. Perhaps nothing short of 
this would have served historically, at that time: For man 
to enter history as the rational animal, it was necessary for 
him to be convinced that the objects of his reasoning, the 
Ideas, were more real than his own individual person or the 
particular objects that made up his world. The great step 
forward into rationalism required its own mythology—such 
perhaps is always the ambiguity of human evolution. 

Plato's thought, as we have seen, values (which means, 
finds “really real”) the eternal over the temporal, the uni¬ 
versal over the particular, reason over the non-rational 
other half of man. In all these valuations it is profoundly 
anti-existential—a philosophy of essence rather than of exist- 



ence. Yet it remains existential in its conception of the 
activity of philosophizing as fundamentally a means of per¬ 
sonal salvation. Plato had no conception of metaphysics as 
such, as a purely theoretical branch of philosophy devoted 
to the study of Being as Being. He was an Athenian to the 
end, which means that his interest in political life, the 
polls, was the one to which all other human interests were 
subordinate. Athens did not produce metaphysicians; these 
came rather from other parts of the Greek world, from 
Ionia, Milesia, Sicily, southern Italy; and the founder of 
metaphysics as a strict and separate discipline was Aristotle, 
a native of Stagira in Macedonia. But for Plato, the 
Athenian, all metaphysical speculation was simply instru¬ 
mental in the passionate human search for the ideal state 
and the ideal way to live—in short, for a means to the re¬ 
demption of man. The figure of Socrates as a living human 
presence dominates all the earlier dialogues because, for the 
young Plato, Socrates the man was the very incarnation of 
philosophy as a concrete way of life, a personal calling and 
search. It is in this sense too that Kierkegaard, more than 
two thousand years later, was to revive the figure of Soc¬ 
rates—the thinker who lived his thought and was not merely 
a professor in an academy—as his precursor in existential 
thinking. All of this adds to the richness and ambiguity of 
the Platonic writings. But the figure of Socrates himself 
undergoes some radical transformations as we follow the 
growth and systematization of Plato’s rationalism. In the 
earlier, so-called “Socratic,” dialogues the personality of 
Socrates is rendered in vivid and dramatic strokes; gradu¬ 
ally, however, he becomes merely a name, a mouthpiece 
for Plato’s increasingly systematic views, and the dialogues 
tend toward monologues, mere formal essays. In the Phae- 
drus Socrates is still a friend to poets: all the greatest gifts 
to man, he tells us, come out of a form of inspired madness, 
and the poetic man, haunted by the muses, is ranked near 
to the philosopher in the hierarchy of h uman values. In 
The Sophist , however, a late dialogue, the poets are lumped 
together in disrepute with the Sophists as traffickers in non- 
being, dealers in untruth. The figure of Socrates himself by 


8 7 

then has shrunk from a flesh-and-blood person to a shadowy 
abstract reasoner. In the later dialogues he even takes a 
back seat: the principal figure in The Sophist is the Eleatic 
Stranger; in The Laws it is the Athenian Stranger; and in 
the Parmenides the venerable figure of Parmenides lectures 
Socrates on the intricacies of dialectic. Part of this may be 
due simply to fading memory: the Socrates who died in 
399 b.c. had stamped himself so strongly on the young 
man s mind that for the next thirty or forty years he vir¬ 
tually dominated Plato’s life; but with the passage of time 
even this vivid figure had to grow fainter and, in uncon¬ 
scious compensation, Plato had to assert himself at the 
end against Socrates. Those unknown figures—the Eleatic 
Stranger and the Athenian Stranger—are simply the shadow 
of Plato himself, those portions of his personality which had 
not been able to speak through the mouth of Socrates but 
had at last forced themselves to be recognized. Because of 
his meeting with Socrates, Plato had ceased to be a poet, 
and finally, at the end of the trail, in his least poetic dia¬ 
logue, The Laws , he advises the death penalty for those 
whose thought opposes the religious orthodoxy of the state 
—the very crime for which Socrates had been put to death 
by the Athenian orthodoxy and in revolt against which 
Plato himself had taken up his own career as a philosopher! 
Unconsciously, at the end, he took his revenge upon the 
figure that had dominated his life. 

When we come to the end, with Aristotle, of the great 
historical cycle that began with the pre-Socratics, philoso¬ 
phy had become a purely theoretical and objective disci¬ 
pline. The main branches of philosophy, as we know it to¬ 
day as an academic subject, had been laid out. Wisdom is 
identified as Metaphysics, or “First Philosophy,” a detached 
and theoretical discipline: the ghost of the existential Soc¬ 
rates had at last been put to rest. (The progress of this 
great historical curve is all the more remarkable if we con¬ 
sider Aristotle’s own individual development, as it has been 
established by Wemer Jaeger: as a young man and still a 
Platonist, Aristotle himself conceived of philosophy as the 



personal and passionate search for redemption from the 
wheel of birth and death.) The foundations of the sciences, 
as the West has known them, had been laid, and this was 
only possible because reason had detached itself from the 
mythic, religious, poetic impulses with which it had hith¬ 
erto been mixed so that it had no distinguishable identity 
of its own. 

The West has thought in the shadow of the Greeks; 
even where later Western thinkers have rebelled against 
Greek wisdom, they have thought their rebellion through 
in the terms which the Greeks laid down for them. We must 
therefore understand Greek rationalism in all its depth and 
breadth if we are to understand some of the later revolts 
against it, and particularly the modem effort of existential 
philosophy at last to think beyond it. The rationalism of the 
Greeks was not the mere passing salute to reason that a 
present-day orator might toss off before an academic audi¬ 
ence. The Greeks were thoroughgoing, stringent, and bold 
in their thinking—and never more so than when they placed 
reason at the top of the human hierarchy. Which is greater, 
the artist or the thinker? Is Mozart, the creator of music, 
inferior to the physicist Helmholtz, the theorist who ex¬ 
plained the nature of sound? Which is the hig her life—that 
of Shakespeare, the greatest poet of the English language, 
or of Newton, the greatest English scientist? We today 
would hesitate to answer such questions; and in our timid¬ 
ity we might even reject them as meaningless. Not so the 
Greeks. A young Greek who felt a disposition toward both 
poetry and theory, and wanted to choose one for a career, 
would want to know which was the better life, and Plato 
and Aristotle would have made no bones about their reply; 
the theoretical life is higher than the life of the artist or 
that of the practical man of politics—or of the saint, for that 
matter, though they did not yet know of this kind of 
existence. In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle gives us a 
remarkably flexible and well-rounded picture of human 
nature and the many different kinds of goals, or goods, at 
which it may aim; but the ethical question still seems un¬ 
answered for him until he has declared which of all pos- 


sible goods is the best, and in the tenth and final book of 
this work he expresses his own preference (stated, of course, 
as an objective truth) for the life of pure reason, the life 
of the philosopher or theoretical scientist, as the highest 
life. Here his own words must be observed carefully: 

It would seem, too, that this [Reason] is the true self of 
every man, since it is the supreme and better part. It will 
be strange, then, if he should choose not his own life, 
but some other*s. . . . What is naturally proper to every 
creature is the highest and pleasantest for him. And so, 
to man, this will be the life of Reason, since Reason is, in 
the highest sense, a man's self. ( Eth . Nic . X, 7.) 

Reason, Aristotle tells us, is the highest part of our person¬ 
ality: that which the human person truly is. One’s reason, 
then, is one’s real self, the center of one’s personal identity. 
This is rationalism stated in its starkest and strongest terms 
—that one’s rational self is one’s real self—and as such held 
sway over the views of Western philosophers up until very 
modem times. Even the Christianity of the Middle Ages, 
when it assimilated Aristotle, did not displace this Aristo¬ 
telian principle: it simply made an uneasy alliance between 
faith as the supernatural center of the personality and rea¬ 
son as its natural center; the natural man remained an 
Aristotelian man, a being whose real self was his rational 

Aristotle did not have, as Plato did, a realm of eternal 
essences, which is alone “really real,” to guarantee the 
primacy of reason. Nevertheless, he too found a metaphysi¬ 
cal ground for this primacy, in the intelligibility of all 
Being as it rests on a First Cause. To know, says Aristotle, 
is to know the cause, and human reason can ascend to 
knowledge of the First Cause of all things, the Unmoved 
Mover of the Universe, God. So long as the human intel¬ 
lect has held out to it the prospect of surveying the whole 
cosmos from its ultimate height to its lowest depth, to the 
end that it may see the ultimate and sufficient reason why 
this cosmos exists and why it exists in the manner it does— 
so long as such a goal is promised to the intellect, then all 



the spectacles afforded by art, all the worldly triumphs of 
the practical life, will dwindle by comparison. The value of 
art or of the practical life must necessarily be ranked lower 
than that of a theoretical vision so complete and all- 
encompassing. The connection between theoretical reason 
as the highest human function and the possible complete¬ 
ness of its vision of the cosmos is an intrinsic one: the latter 
secures the supreme value of the former. For where the 
ultimate reason of things may be known, who would ab¬ 
stain from the effort to reach it, or be distracted by other 
goals which partake of the finitude and incompleteness of 
our poor feeble human existence? “Happy is he who can 
know the causes of things,” said the Roman poet; and the 
happiest man would be he who could know the ultimate 
causes of things. 

What happens, however, to this view that the highest 
man is the theoretical man if we conceive of human exist¬ 
ence as finite through and through—and if human reason, 
and the knowledge it can produce, is seen to be finite like 
the rest of man’s being? Then the possibility that the system 
of human knowledge may be closed and completed, that all 
of Being may be ultimately embraced in one vision, disap¬ 
pears; and man is left patiently treading the endless road 
of knowledge that never reaches conclusion. If science were 
to continue its researches uninterruptedly for a thousand 
years, it would not disclose to us the ultimate ground of 
things. Being finite, we should never arrive at the highest 
object of knowledge, God, which this rationalist tradition 
has celebrated as the goal that outshines all others. This 
conception of human finitude places in question the su¬ 
premacy that reason has traditionally been given over all 
other human functions in the history of Western philoso¬ 
phy. Theoretical knowledge may indeed be pursued as a 
personal passion, or its findings may have practical applica¬ 
tion; but its value above that of all other human enterprises 
(such as art or religion) cannot be enhanced by any claim 
that it will reach the Absolute. Suppose, for example, that 
there were a road and we were told we ought to walk it; 
in response to our question “Why?”, we might be told that 



we ought to do so because the walking itself would be 
pleasant or useful (good for our health); but if we were 
told that there was a priceless treasure at the end of the 
road, then the imperative to walk would carry overwhelm¬ 
ing weight with us. It is this treasure at the end of the road 
that has disappeared from the modem horizon, for the sim¬ 
ple reason that the end of the road has itself disappeared. 

Hence, we in our day have to come back to those old, 
apparently naive questions of the Greeks from a different 
angle, as Nietzsche was the first to do: Which is higher, 
science or art? Who is the highest—the theoretical or the 
practical man? or the saint? or the artist? The man of faith 
or the man of reason? If man can no longer hold before his 
mind ’s eye the prospect of the Great Chain of Being, a cos¬ 
mos rationally ordered and accessible from top to bottom 
to reason, what goal can philosophers set themselves that 
can measure up to the greatness of that old Greek ideal of 
the bios theoretikos , the theoretical life, which has fash¬ 
ioned the destiny of Western man for millennia? 


Chapter Five 


Though strongly colored by Greek and Neo-Platonic in¬ 
fluences, Christianity belongs to the Hebraist rather than 
to the Hellenist side of man’s nature because Christianity 
bases itself above all on faith and sets the man of faith 
above the man of reason. Again and again, at the beginning 
of Christianity, St. Paul tells us that the faith he preaches 
is foolishness to the Greeks, for they demand “wisdom”— 
which of course to the Greek meant rational philosophy 
and not religious faith. But the historical fact that Christi¬ 
anity arose in a world which already knew about reason 
through the Greeks distinguishes Christian faith from the 
Hebraic faith of the Old Testament. Ancient Biblical man 
knew the uncertainties and waverings of faith as a matter 
of personal experience, but he did not yet know the full 
conflict of faith with reason because reason itself did not 
come into historical existence until later, with the Greeks,, 
Christian faith is therefore more intense than that of the 
Old Testament, and at the same time paradoxical: it is not 
only faith beyond reason but, if need be, against reason. 
This problem of the relation between faith and reason, 
stated by St Paul, is not only the root problem for cen¬ 
turies of Christian philosophers to come, it is the root itself 
of later Christian civilization. 

The problem is still with us, in our modem civilization, 
though naturally it presents itself to us in a very different 



guise than it did to St. Paul. For what is faith? Philosophers 
through the centuries have attempted to analyze or de¬ 
scribe it, but all their talk cannot reproduce mentally the 
fact itself. Faith is faith, vital and indescribable. He who 
has it knows what it is; and perhaps also he who sin¬ 
cerely and painfully knows he is without it has some 
inkling of what it is, in its absence from a heart that 
feels itself dry and shriveled. Faith can no more be de¬ 
scribed to a thoroughly rational mind than the idea of colors 
can be conveyed to a blind man. Fortunately, we are able 
to recognize it when we see it in others, as in St. Paul, a 
case where faith had taken over the whole personality. Thus 
vital and indescribable, faith partakes of the mystery of life 
itself. The opposition between faith and reason is that be¬ 
tween the vital and the rational—and stated in these terms, 
the opposition is a crucial problem today. The question is 
one of where the center of the human personality is to be 
located: St. Paul locates this center in faith, Aristotle in 
reason; and these two conceptions, worlds apart, show how 
at its very fountainhead the Christian understanding of man 
diverges utterly from that of Greek philosophy, however 
much later thinkers may have tried to straddle this gulf. 

From the point of view of reason, any faith, including 
the faith in reason itself, is paradoxical, since faith and rea¬ 
son are fundamentally different functions of the human 
psyche. But the paradoxical quality of Christian faith is 
further heightened by its specific content: that the Son of 
God became man, died, and rose from the dead. On this 
matter St. Paul knows that his adversaries are not merely 
the Greek philosophers but the faithful Hebrews too. To 
the Greeks, he tells us, Christianity is foolishness, to the 
Jews a scandal; if the Greeks demand wisdom, the Jews on 
the other hand demand a sign—i.e., a definite miraculous 
event to show that this Jesus of Nazareth is really the 
promised Messiah. Not the Incarnation—that the Infinite 
God became finite man, which to Kierkegaard, later, is the 
absolute paradox and scandal of Christianity—but the res¬ 
urrection of Jesus is the overriding article of the faith that 
takes possession of Pauls mind. (It is extremely doubtful. 

94 * 


in fact, that there is any clear-cut doctrine of the Incarna¬ 
tion in St. Paul.) The central fact for his faith is that Jesus 
did actually rise from the dead, and so that death itself is 
conquered—which is what in the end man most ardently 
longs for. The problem of death lies at the center of the 
religious consciousness—Unamuno was really following St. 
Paul when he argued this—and at the center of much more 
of the philosophic consciousness than this consciousness it¬ 
self realizes. Plato believed in the eternal Ideas because he 
was afraid to die. (This is not personal derogation, for the 
man who is not afraid to die is not really alive.) And be¬ 
cause the soul shared in the eternal Ideas, it too could be 
eternal, and so the man Plato himself might survive death. 
But Paul's instincts are shrewder: he knows that neither 
Platonic nor any other kind of reason can convince us of 
immortality; nothing short of a miracle will do—and the 
most astounding one at that, a stumbling block to the 
skeptical among Greeks and Jews alike. Nowadays we 
would say that a miracle like the resurrection merely con¬ 
tradicts the natural order, whereas the Incarnation contra¬ 
dicts even logic, but we speak thus looking backward from 
the vantage point of Kierkegaard. It was not so in the ear¬ 
liest Christianity, where faith, more naive and primitive, 
came closer to the heart of the matter. 

And it was not so more than a century after Paul, with 
the Church Father TertuUian (150-225), who is often 
cited as an existential precursor of Kierkegaard. Like Kier¬ 
kegaard, TertuUian was a brilliant inteUectual and a power¬ 
ful writer, who pitted aU his power of mind and his rhetoric 
against the inteUect itself. And like Kierkegaard he too in¬ 
sists on the absolutely paradoxical quality of the Christian 
faith; but notice in the oft-quoted lines of his De Carne 
Christi where he places the weight of emphasis, as the cen¬ 
tral paradox: 

The Son of God was crucified; I am unashamed of it 

because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son 

of God died; it is by aU means to be believed, because 


it is absurd. And He was buried and rose again; the fact 

is certain because it is impossible. 

Here the parallel with Kierkegaard ends, as all such histori¬ 
cal parallels between men of vastly different epochs must; 
There is no Kierkegaard before Kierkegaard, no Nietzsche 
before Nietzsche, and in general nobody before himself 
simply because in history nothing individual and great hap¬ 
pens before it does—before the conditions of its being are 
present. Tertullian was a Christian writer at the beginning 
of Christianity, when the faith was aggressive, expanding, 
conquering; Kierkegaard toward its end, when it was in re¬ 
treat and half buried under the wave of an advancing 
secular civilization. 

The violence of the conflict between faith and reason, 
which finds egression in anti-rationalism, in a Tertullian, 
is mitigated by the time we come to a figure like St. 
Augustine (354--430), who is also often cited as an existen¬ 
tial precursor and is indeed a more consequential one than 
Tertullian. The existentialism of St. Augustine lies in his 
power as a religious psychologist, as expressed most notably 
and dramatically in his Confessions. Augustine had an al¬ 
most voluptuous sensitivity to the Self in its inner inquie¬ 
tude, its trembling and frailty, its longing to reach beyond 
itself in love; and in the Confessions he gives us a revelation 
of subjective experience such as even the greatest Hellenic 
literature does not, and could not, because this interioriza- 
tion of experience came through Christianity and was un¬ 
known to the earlier Greeks. Where Plato and Aristotle 
had asked the question, What is man?, St. Augustine (in 
the Confessions ) asks, Who am I?—and this shift is decisive. 
The first question presupposed a world of objects, a fixed 
natural and zoological order, in which man was included; 
and when man’s precise place in that order had been found, 
the specifically differentiating characteristic of reason was 
added. Augustine’s question, on the other hand, stems from 
an altogether different, more obscure and vital center 
within the questioner himself; from an acutely personal 
sense of dereliction and loss, rather than from the detach- 



ment with which reason surveys the world of objects in 
order to locate its bearer, man, zoologically within it. Au¬ 
gustine s question therefore implies that man cannot be 
defined by being located in that natural order, for man, as 
the being who asks himself, Who am I?, has already broken 
through the barriers of the animal world. Augustine thus 
opens the door to an altogether different view of man than 
had prevailed in Greek thought. 

He opens the door, but he does not really go inside. For 
the other side of St. Augustine is Augustine the Neo- 
Platonist. As a formal theologian, he was concerned with 
the justification of God’s ways to man and particularly a 
justification of God’s cosmos; and when he was required 
thus to think cosmically, rather than personally, he found 
the metaphysics of Plato’s Timaeus and of the Neo-Plato- 
nist Plotinus at hand and suited to his purpose. The duality 
that gave rise on the one hand to Augustine the existential 
lyricist of religious experience and on the other to Augus¬ 
tine the formal theologian (thinking with the concepts of 
Greek metaphysics) is one that lay concealed beneath all 
the centuries of medieval philosophy that followed; but it 
did not erupt into painful consciousness until the modem 
period, when the containing structure of the church, which 
had held the conflicting elements together in a kind of sus¬ 
pension, could no longer serve this purpose. 

The opposition or duality in Augustine can be illustrated 
on one crucial point: the problem of evil. On page after 
page of the Confessions he reveals to us with marvelous 
power the presence of the evil and the negative in our 
existence; but as a formal theologian, in his Enchiridion (a 
manual of theology), he has to make the negative disappear 
from that existence or be sublimated into some larger har¬ 
mony. All evil, he tells us, is a lack of being, hence a form 
of non-being; and since the negative is not real, as positive 
being is, we are somehow to be consoled. St. Augustine was 
here engaged in an effort at theodicy, a justification of the 
goodness of God’s cosmos; after Augustine, theodicy was 
the central project of all Christian metaphysicians, down 
through Leibniz and Hegel. Leibniz’s cosmic optimism 



came to its comic end in the Dr. Pangloss of Voltaire’s 
Candide, Hegel’s in the existential revolt of Kierkegaard. 
Hegel is the end of the line because once the spirit of exis¬ 
tential revolt has entered the modem world we are forced 
to take the side of Ivan Karamazov, who says that he “has 
to decline the ticket”—the ticket of admission to a cosmos 
where so much evil has to exist as the necessary precondi¬ 
tion of good. Similarly, we are forced today to take the side 
of Augustine’s Confessions against his Enchiridion because 
we recognize theodicy for what it is, the tragicomedy of 
rationalism in extremis. Theodicy is an attempt to deal 
with God as a metaphysical object, to reason demonstra¬ 
tively about Him and His cosmos, to the end that the per¬ 
fection of both emerges as a rational certainty. Behind this 
lies the human need to seek security in a world where man 
feels homeless. But reason cannot give that security; if it 
could, faith would be neither necessary nor so difficult. In 
the age-old struggle between the rational and the vital, the 
modem revolt against theodicy (or, equally, the modem 
recognition of its impossibility) is on the side of the vital, 
since it alone holds firm to those inexpugnable elements of 
our existence that Augustine described in his Confessions , 
but then as metaphysician attempted to think away. 

St. Augustine saw faith and reason—the vital and the 
rational—as coming together in eventual harmony; and in 
this too he set the pattern of Christian thought for the thou¬ 
sand years of the Middle Ages that were to follow. The 
formula after Augustine became “Faith seeking understand¬ 
ing”: that is, faith taken as a datum, a given fact within 
the individual’s existence, then seeking to elaborate itself 
rationally as far as it can. In a Neo-Platonic cosmos it was 
easy for faith to seek its own understanding, for that cosmos 
itself, though the philosophers themselves did not know it, 
rested on a faith: given a universe through which God al¬ 
ready radiated as an infinite sun, one could find analogies 
and simulacra everywhere to the dogmas of faith. If one 
could not prove the dogma of the Trinity, one could at least 
show likenesses to the Trinity everywhere in nature and 
man. This made the dogma more plausible, even if in its 



intimate nature it remained a mystery to reason. That such 
a dogma absolutely contradicts reason was something the 
medieval philosophers never perceived or acknowledged. 
Faith, contrary to Tertullian, had become faith beyond 
reason, but never against, or in spite of it. On the whole, 
throughout the Middle Ages the position of reason—and this 
in itself may seem a paradox—remained unassailable. 

The consolidation of the Church, institutionally and dog¬ 
matically, helped in this. As the Church enunciated its 
faith in article after article of dogma, the medieval philoso¬ 
pher was left free to be as rational as he wished, since the 
non-rational part of him was contained and expressed in the 
structure of the Church and could thus take care of itself. 
Secular historians have often represented the medieval 
Church as placing a galling restraint upon the free intel¬ 
ligence of medieval thinkers. This is undoubtedly true from 
the point of view of the modem secular mind (to which, 
by the way, there was no counterpart in that earlier pe¬ 
riod) ; but it is not at all the way in which the medieval 
thinkers themselves felt about the dogmas of their faith. 
These dogmas were experienced as the vital psychic fluid 
in which reason itself moved and operated and were thus 
its secret wellspring and support. It remained for later 
Protestant philosophers, like Kant, to experience the fateful, 
but necessary, split between reason and dogma, in such a 
way that Kant can point out that the traditional proofs of 
the existence of God really rest on an unconscious faith. 
What the medieval thinker often took to be reason was in 
fact faith; and the error occurred not because of a deficiency 
in logical acumen on the part of those thinkers, but be¬ 
cause their reason itself was rooted in their historical exist¬ 
ence—the existence, in short, of an Age of Faith. 

From time to time, of course, there were rumblings of 
discord within the medieval harmony. The tension between 
the vital and the rational in man involves such a delicate 
balance that it can split apart into open warfare even where 
man is totally contained in a universal Church. The in¬ 
stincts of man are so earth-bound that they shrewdly sense 
it whenever the approach of logic threatens them. And so 



we find in tie eleventh century, the age of naive and beau¬ 
tiful Romanesque art, when the logical works of Aristotle 
were just beginning to circulate in the West, a violent con¬ 
troversy ensuing between “theologians” and “dialecticians.” 
The theologians were the spokesmen for faith, the dialecti¬ 
cians for logic. It was once again the old conflict between 
faith and reason, but this time sharpened by the sense of 
a naive and rude age that the very coming of reason was it¬ 
self a threat. The most remarkable figure in the controversy 
was Peter Damianl (1007-1072), the most forceful spokes¬ 
man for the party of the theologians, who attacked the 
exaltation of grammar and logic (what nowadays we would 
call semantics) as the temptation of the Devil. The Devil 
in fact, Damiani says, was the first grammarian, tempting 
Adam in the Garden of Eden with the promise “Ye shall 
be as gods,” and thus teaching him to decline the word 
“God” in the plural. Logic is quite useless, according to this 
theologian, in helping us to know God because God in His 
nature is so incomprehensible and omnipotent that He 
transcends the basic law of logic, the principle of contradic¬ 
tion; God can even abolish the past, make what has hap¬ 
pened not to have happened. Logic is a man-made tool, 
and God cannot be measured according to its requirements. 
We are not far here from the later protest of Pascal: “Not 
the God of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham, 
Isaac, and Jacob.” 

The enlightenment went on, nevertheless, despite such 
rumblings; and Greek reason, in the form of the works of 
Aristotle, became known more and more in the West. It 
took prodigious labors on the part of the philosophers of 
the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to effect the final medi¬ 
eval concordat between faith and reason. The moment of 
synthesis, when it came in the thirteenth and early four¬ 
teenth centuries, produced a civilization perhaps as beau¬ 
tiful as any man has ever forged, but like all mortal beauty 
a creature of time and insecurity. The fact that the philoso¬ 
phers had to labor so prodigiously in bridging the gap 
should show us how delicate is the balance between the 
vital and the rational, and that no harmony between them 



can be acquired ready-made. The medieval harmony was 
achieved at a price: In the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas 
(1225P-1274?), the crowning work of the synthesis, man 
is—to use Bernard Groethuysen’s image—really a centaur, a 
being divided between the natural and theological orders. 
In the natural order Thomistic man is Aristotelian—a crea¬ 
ture whose center is reason and whose substantial form is 
the rational soul; and St. Thomas, the Christian* never bats 
an eye in commenting upon the passage in Aristotle’s 
Ethics which states flatly that reason is our true and real 
self, the center of our personal identity, but merely ex¬ 
pounds it in straightforward agreement. This might be 
excused as simply the pedagogic exposition of a teacher 
identifying himself with his text; but in the Summa Theo - 
logica he repeats that the speculative, or theoretical, intel¬ 
lect is the highest function of man, that to which all the 
others are subordinate. This rational animal in the natural 
order is subordinated, to be sure, to the supernatural; but 
again through an intellectual vision—the final one, of the 
essence of God—which informs and purifies the will. This is 
a synthesis indeed, but how far we have traveled from the 
experience of Biblical man or of the early Christian, whose 
faith was felt as something that pierced die bowels and the 
belly of a man’s spirit! 

And despite the synthesis, despite the fact that philoso¬ 
phers in this epoch had come to live with the assumption 
that faith and reason agree, the ancient problem of the re¬ 
lation between the vital and the rational stfll did not dis¬ 
appear; it simply went underground and popped its head 
up elsewhere: this time in the controversy between Volun¬ 
tarism and Intellectualism. After St. Thomas, Duns Scoius 
(1265P-1308) and his followers advocated a doctrine that 
went contrary to the Thomists—that of the primacy of the 
will over the intellect. In an age of unbounded rationalism 
(among the philosophers, that is: the actual concrete life 
of the time was far from that), such a doctrine was the 
faint but remembered echo of primitive Christianity’s cry 
as voiced by St. Paul when he said that he came not to 
bring wisdom to the philosophers but a saving will to all 



mankind. Scotus, a Franciscan and therefor© an Augustin- 
ian, was also remembering the existential voice of St. 
Augustine’s Confessions. 

St. Thomas, the Intellectualist, had argued that the in¬ 
tellect in man is prior to the will because the intellect 
determines the will, since we can desire only what we know. 
Scotus, the Voluntarist, replied that the will determines 
what ideas the intellect turns to, and thus in the end de¬ 
termines what the intellect comes to know. Put this way, 
the problem looks as insoluble as which came first the 
chicken or the egg. And indeed this matter of the primacy 
of intellect or will is one of the oldest and most vexing ques¬ 
tions in philosophy—it is the issue behind Socrates’ perpet¬ 
ual query whether virtue is really knowledge and therefore 
all the perversities of the will merely forms of ignorance. 
The question has perhaps to be put differently: not in terms 
of whether will is to be given primacy over the intellect, or 
the intellect over the will—these functions being after all but 
abstract fragments of the total man—but rather in terms of 
the primacy of the thinker over his thoughts, of the concrete 
and total 1 man himself who is doing the thinking. At least 
Voluntarism seems to be aware that it is the heart which 
pumps blood to the brain, and so its own heart is rather in 
the right place; however excessive or extreme the various 
voluntarisms have been in the history of philosophy, the 
fact remains that Voluntarism has always been, in intention 
at least, an effort to go beyond the thought to the concrete 
existence of the thinker who is thinking that thought. 


Contemporary Thomists would not accept this compari¬ 
son between Duns Scotus and St. Thomas because they are 
just now in the process of discovering St. Thomas as the 
true and authentic existentialist. When Existentialism first 
appeared on the scene in France, M. Jacques Maritain was 
scathing and peevish in his denunciation of it, but then later 
announced that all it contained had been said already in 



the thirteenth century by St. Thomas. Imitation is the 
sincerest form of flatteryl 

In fact, the issues between Aquinas and Scotus are com¬ 
plicated by another profound and technical problem: the 
relation between essence and existence. And to shed some 
light on this problem we shall have to anticipate a little 
what will be given more extended treatment later. 

The essence of a thing is what the thing is; existence re¬ 
fers rather to the sheer fact that the thing is. Thus when I 
say “I am a man,” the “I am” denotes the fact that I exist, 
while the predicate “man” denotes what kind of existent I 
am, namely a man. 

Modem Existentialism, particularly in the writings of 
Sartre, has made much of the thesis: existence precedes es¬ 
sence. In the case of man, its meaning is not difficult to 
grasp. Man exists and makes himself to be what he is; his 
individual essence or nature comes to be out of his existence; 
and in this sense it is proper to say that existence precedes 
essence. Man does not have a fixed essence that is handed 
to him ready-made; rather, he makes his own nature out 
of his freedom and the historical conditions in which he is 
placed. As Ortega y Gasset puts it, man has no nature, only 
a history. This is one of the chief respects in which man 
differs from things, which do have fixed natures or essences, 
which are once and for all what they are. However dif¬ 
ferently the various Existentialists may put this thesis, they 
are all agreed on it as a cardinal point in their analysis of 
man. Sartre proclaims the point as applying, be it noted, 
only to the case of man; it is only with man that it seems 
to him to have any significance. Whether or not existence 
precedes essence in things generally—in the stone, the tree, 
or a table—or whether the reverse is true is a question that 
would hardly seem to matter very much, since a thing at 
any moment is always precisely what it is, and it would not 
make much sense to raise the question when existence and 
essence exactly coincide. 

In the history of philosophy, however, the question has 
been raised not only for man but for all beings. The problem 
breaks down into two separate but related questions: (1) 



Does existence have primacy over essence, or the reverse? 
and (2) In actual existing things is there a real distinc¬ 
tion between the two? Or are they merely different points 
of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing ? 

The reader may wonder whether questions that sound as 
abstract and remote as these have any real flesh-and-blood 
import at all. But its technicality alone need not make a 
question irrelevant to life, if the technicality results from 
carrying a question that is indeed one of life and death, as 
the phrase goes, to the farthest reaches of thought. These 
two questions touch upon the most fundamental matters 
of philosophy, and indeed the whole history of Western 
philosophy revolves around the answers that have been 
given to them. How one answers them determines one’s 
view of one’s own life and the life of nature. A glance back 
at Plato, the father of Western philosophy, will show us 
the h uman consequences of the answers to these questions. 

Essences Plato called Ideas. These Ideas, as we saw in 
the previous chapter, were for him “really real,” more real 
than the particular things that derived their own individual 
being from participation in the Ideas. The circle, that is, 
about which the geometrician reasons is the essence com¬ 
mon to every individual circle in nature, and without which 
the individual circles could not exist; it is more real than 
the individual circle that he may draw on the blackboard 
for illustration. Now, the circle that the mathematician 
reasons about is one he never draws upon the blackboard; it 
cannot be drawn because it never comes into existence; it 
is outside time and therefore eternal. So too it never comes 
to be in actual physical space; and it is non-spatial in the 
same sense in which it is non-temporal. All the Ideas, for 
Plato, thus constitute a realm of absolute realities beyond 
time, change, and existence, and existence is merely a 
shadowy replica of essence. When an Idea comes into 
existence, it is through a fall (a kind of original sin) from 
some higher realm of Being. Time itself—that invisible and 
tormenting medium of our own individual existence—be¬ 
comes merely a shadowy image of eternity. 

It requires very little imagination to see how, holding 



such a philosophic position, one’s attitudes toward life be¬ 
come colored all the way down the line by the Platonic 
bias. All of Plato’s writings, the whole of his philosophy, 
are in fact a working out of the consequences of this funda¬ 
mental conviction of the priority of essence over existence 
for every field of human experience: for government, ethics, 
aesthetics; even extending down to the condemnation of the 
life of the body. Whatever we may think of it, throughout 
the centuries Platonism has exercised a powerful influence 
upon the imaginations and lives of men, and in view of the 
miraculous fertility of that influence we cannot say that the 
question of existence versus essence is an idle one, or that 
it is remote from the concerns of life. 

Plato’s is the classic and indeed archetypal expression of 
a philosophy which we may now call essentialism , which 
holds that essence is prior in reality to existence. Existen¬ 
tialism, by contrast, is the philosophy that holds existence 
to be prior to essence. The history of Western philosophy 
has been one long conflict, sometimes explicit but more 
often hidden and veiled, between essentialism and existen¬ 
tialism. And it would seem also to be the case that, to the 
degree to which this history takes its beginnings from Plato, 
essentialism has always come out on top. This may not be 
due altogether to the compelling influence of Plato; it may 
also be due to the very nature of philosophy itself, to the 
hidden tendency of human reason. We shall have more to 
say on this question later. 

With the foregoing distinctions perhaps a little clearer, 
let us return now to the point in history where we left mat¬ 
ters between St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. 

On the question of existence in relation to essence it 
would seem that St. Thomas is the existentialist. He held 
that existence is prior to essence in the sense that what pri¬ 
marily constitutes the being of anything is its act of gris ting 
(actus essendi). Moreover, he said, in all created things— 
all things except God that ultimately derive their existence 
from God—there is a real difference between the thing s ex¬ 
istence and its essence. I am not my essence, since if I were 
—if essence and existence were identical in me—it would be 



of my essence to exist, and I would never die. For all con¬ 
tingent beings, beings that are bom and that die, existence 
therefore can never coincide with essence. There is within 
the being of contingent things a hiatus or cleft, as it were, 
between existence and essence. 

Duns Scotus, on the other hand, maintained the primacy 
of essence over existence. In the matter of the order of the 
attributes of God, at any rate, he set God's essence first as 
the basic attribute, and His existence after it. To be sure, 
it might be argued by the Scotist that since Gods being is 
absolutely one and undivided, in contrast to the complexity 
and self-dividedness that we find among the things of na¬ 
ture, it does not make much difference whether we assign 
to essence or existence the status of primary attribute be¬ 
cause the two words as applied to God designate the very 
same thing—God Himself. The order of the divine predi¬ 
cates would thus seem to be merely a matter of verbal 
arrangement. But this arrangement does show the philo¬ 
sophic cast of mind of the arranger; and even though th~ 
attributes in this case denote the same reality in the thing, 
he who puts essence first, and on grounds of strictest philo¬ 
sophic principle, does so because he considers it more basic 
than existence. In this respect the Scotist philosophy was 
certainly more essentialistic than that of St. Thomas. 

With regard to the second of our questions—whether ex¬ 
istence and essence in actually existing things are really dis¬ 
tinct—Duns Scotus also held a position different from the 
Thomist one: There is, Scotus says, no real distinction be¬ 
tween the essence and existence of a thing, as St. Thomas 
had maintained; the two are but different ways in which 
the mind lays hold of the existing thing. 

This question of the identity of essence and existence is 
one of the most tangled in the history of Scholastic philoso¬ 
phy, and it is still hotly debated between two schools of 
Catholic philosophers, the Jesuits and the Dominicans. 
After Scotus, in the sixteenth century, the great Spanish 
theologian Francis Suarez—really the last voice of medieval 
Scholasticism—upheld the Scotist position on the question. 
Suarez became the great philosophical teacher for the Jes- 



uits, and indeed tie interpreter par excellence for them of 
what St. Thomas was supposed to have meant. Hence 
the continuing, and even contemporary, debate between 
Suarezians and Thomists (Dominicans), a controversy that 
is relevant in that the issue still being debated throws an 
unexpected and clarifying light on the whole of modem 

Much of this light comes from a remarkable, even great, 
book. Being and Some Philosophers , by the distinguished 
scholar of medieval philosophy, Etienne Gilson. Whether or 
not we agree with him that all existential roads lead to 
Rome—or, more exactly, to the Paris of the thirteenth cen¬ 
tury where St. Thomas taught his doctrine of the priority 
of existence—Gilson has presented a marvelous analysis of 
the way in which the Scotist influence worked upon the 
great philosophers of the seventeenth century, Descartes, 
Spinoza, and Leibniz, and through them has permeated 
the thinking of the last three centuries. Descartes, Spinoza, 
and Leibniz were all philosophers with a pronounced 
mathematical bent, and therefore it was likely that they 
should find congenial a philosophy that exalted essence 
over existence. The mathematician is enthralled by the 
timeless self-identity of essences, and hence always gravi¬ 
tates spontaneously to one form of Platonism or another. 
Moreover, the seventeenth century and those following it 
were concerned with the extraordinary expansion of mathe¬ 
matics and mathematical physics, and these two disciplines 
won prestige beyond that of every other intellectual enter¬ 
prise because of the extraordinary conquests over nature 
they made possible: hence this bias toward essence with 
which the contemporary era in philosophy began continued 
supreme and in fact almost unchallenged until Kierkegaard 
appeared in the nineteenth century. The roots of a thing 
always go deeper into the soil than our vision of the plant 
above the surface would lead us to imagine; and in this 
case it comes as something of a surprise to know that one 
fateful direction of modem thought had its roots in the 
disputes of theologians in the thirteenth and fourteenth 



Modem Catholic philosophers, to whom we alluded ear¬ 
lier, have made a great deal of St. Thomas as representing 
the original and true form of what a Christian existentialism 
should be, an assumption enabling some Thomists to as¬ 
sume a rather papal and condescending attitude toward 
modem Existentialism as toward a degenerate scion. The 
existentialism of St. Thomas, however, is extremely debata¬ 
ble; and one faithful son of the Church, Miguel Unamuno 
—whose testimony should carry as much weight initially as 
any medieval scholar s, since he was at once a scholar and 
poet—has rejected the mentality of St. Thomas as expressed 
in the Summae as being purely legalistic. The Summae 
plead a case, says Unamuno, they buttress the Church as 
an institution, in the way that the old codifications of 
Homan law buttressed an empire; and in this respect we 
must remember how much of the spirit of the old Roman 
Empire the medieval Church had inherited. A good deal of 
the Thomistic existentialism current nowadays looks indeed 
like a case of special pleading after the fact. A book like 
Gilson’s, for example, shows so strongly the influence of 
Kierkegaard (albeit at work on a mind that is granitically 
Thomist) that it is safe to say the book could not have been 
written if Kierkegaard had not lived. Without Kierkegaard, 
indeed, Gilson would not have found in St. Thomas what 
he does manage to dig out, and the fact is that a good 
many other Thomists found quite different things before 
the influence of Kierkegaard made itself felt. And, to go 
one step further, what Gilson finds is not enough. The his¬ 
toricity of truth is inescapable, however perennial the prob¬ 
lems of philosophy may be, and we should be suspicious 
in advance of any claim that the answer to modem prob¬ 
lems is to be found in the thirteenth century. Granting St. 
Thomas’ thesis of the primacy of existence and of the real 
distinction between existence and essence, we are still very 
far from an answer to those questions which have led mod¬ 
em thinkers like Heidegger and Sartre to a reopening of 
the whole subject of Being. 

The fact is that the Thomistic distinction between essence 
and existence leads us into very grave embarrassment when 



we try to understand our own human existence as men. In 
his treatise On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia) 
St. Thomas cites as an example of essence the traditional 
definition, "Man is a rational animal.” This essence is the 
common characteristic of a whole species. A question then 
arises, and it is the famous question of universals: How 
does this essence, which is one as a species, exist as a plu¬ 
rality of individual members of the species? This essence is 
particularized in each individual: my rational-animality is 
mine, as distinctly my own and different from that of my 
friend Peter as my flesh and blood are mine and not his. In 
fact according to St. Thomas it is my individual matter, my 
flesh and blood, that individuates the universal essence. 
"Signate matter,” Aquinas calls it, and he describes it as 
matter that exists in determinate dimensions—that is, it is 
just this particular matter of mine that fills this space which 
I am now occupying and that excludes any other solid body 
from filling the same space. Now it is precisely here that 
the difficulty arises that begets that classical view we re¬ 
ferred to earlier of man as a centaur, irremediably split be¬ 
tween two parts of his being; here he is divided between 
the essence and the individuating matter that locates his 
body uniquely in space and time. The characteristics or 
qualities that inhere in this individual matter St. Thomas 
calls "accidents,” since they are not a necessary part of the 
essence. But what, we may ask, in the case of any individual 
human being is the accident and what is the essence? Is it at 
all dear that in that singular and internal biography of our 
own selves from birth to death there is a compartment into 
which certain happenings and characteristics are dumped 
as being accidental, while in another compartment are 
other characteristics and events considered as essential? Or, 
more precisely, are the qualities of here and now—the tem¬ 
poral and spatial qualities that are accorded to me in virtue 
of that matter which individuates the essence—accidental 
to my being as a human person? 

If I turn a candid gaze "to the thing s themselves,” as 
Husserl would say, toward my own individual existence as 
it has been-my actual care and concern through life, quite 



apart now from any metaphysical presuppositions what¬ 
ever, can I say that the fact that I exist here and now, rather 
than there and then, is an accident of my being? I was 
bom and have lived an American in the twentieth century. 
From the point of view of an essence of man that exists 
individually in me but is nevertheless really distinc t from 
my existence, such facts are indeed accidents; but they 
have formed the burdens and tasks of my life, and there is 
not a part of its warp and woof into which they have not 
entered. Or, let us take the example of which Sartre has at 
once properly and improperly made a great deal: the fact 
of human sexuality. Is the individual's sexuality part of the 
essence of his existence or only an accident? I cannot, in 
introspection, imagine myself harboring any essence, like a 
nugget at the center of a nest of Chinese boxes, that is not 
touched by the fact that my life has been lived from birth 
as a member of one sex and not of the other. The argument 
applies to all the factual conditions of man's being—man's 
facticity, as Sartre calls it: if we exist our facticity, then we 
are it, and it makes up the total essence of what we 
are. These factual conditions, particularly of the historical 
epoch in which we live, color every portion of our being. 
Existence and essence, as we take them at any rate in the 
actual life of the human person, interpenetrate. 

The Scotist thesis of the identity of essence and existence 
would seem then to do more justice to the actual facts of 
our experience. But, on the other hand, the Thomistic ar¬ 
guments work very well against this position, which ends 
up by making existence itself a kind of “accident" that oc¬ 
curs to essence. Moreover, with this view it becomes diffi¬ 
cult to explain the radical contingency of the human being, 
since if the essence and existence of the actually existing 
person are identical, why should his existence not therefore 
be necessary so that he lives forever? 

But if neither of these medieval positions works, if there 
is neither an identity of essence and existence nor a real 
distinction between them, what then? 

The fact is that neither position can work because the 
very notions with which they deal are too abstract and 



schematic. The medieval conceptions of essence and exist¬ 
ence do not do justice to the full concreteness of modem 
experience, particularly to our experience of man himself. 
They need a complete overhauling. That is why Heidegger 
announced that it was necessary for these questions about 
Being to be renewed, and he has been the first philosopher 
to attempt a radical rethinking of the tradition itself. A 
tradition is kept alive only by such renewal, not by me¬ 
chanical and idle parroting of the formulae it has be¬ 
queathed to the present. But renewal really means renewal, 
and is therefore a very radical adventure. We should not 
be surprised therefore that though modem Existen tialism, 
to the degree that it moves in the mainstream of Western 
thought, inevitably harks back to traditional problems, it 
nevertheless comes up with conclusions that are bound to 
shock some of the traditionalists. Time, alas, is of our es¬ 
sence; and our mere recognition of this fact—a recognition 
that was altogether beyond the anhistorieal medieval man— 
is so radical that it creates a gulf between us and the me¬ 
dieval past. The solutions of that past can never be totally 
ours, marvelous as we have come to realize its philosophy 
as having been. 


However numerous these antecedents and precursors, 
what we know today as Existentialism could not have come 
to be before the conditions of its being were there. Philoso¬ 
phers breed ideas; and if anything keeps them anchored to 
existence, it is not philosophy itself but something that 
comes from outside it—either religion, or the personal 
drama, anguish, or rebellion of the philosopher’s own life. 
So in the past it was the dynamite of Hebraism or Christian¬ 
ity that blew to bits the classical temple of Greek rational¬ 
ism. Before even the possibility of modem Existentialism 
could be created it was necessary to create its world, and 
this could have come about only through science, which 
suddenly projected man out of the Middle Ages. So when 



we come to Pascal (1623-1662), himself a great scientist, 
we are no longer dealing, as in the case of St. Augus¬ 
tine, with a precursor of Existentialism. Pascal is an exis¬ 

Nothing could be more confusing than the indifferent 
lumping together of Pascal and St. Augustine as great psy¬ 
chologists of religion. To be sure, they were both concerned 
with the inner life of the religious man, his anguish and 
restlessness. But the world St. Augustine inhabited was the 
Neo-Platonic cosmos, a luminous crystal palace with the 
superessential Good fixed on its highest point, radiating out¬ 
ward like a beacon and diminishing in brilliance as it shone 
down through the rest of the perfect structure. Pascal’s was 
the desolate and desiccated world of modem science, where 
at night the sage hears not the music of the shining heavenly 
bodies but only the soundless emptiness of space. “The si¬ 
lence of these infinite spaces frightens me,” Pascal said, 
voicing the reaction of the human heart to the universe that 
seventeenth-century science had fabricated for man. In 
that world of frightful and empty space man was homeless. 
Accordingly, he evolved a different image of himself from 
that of the man who inhabited—and believed himself at 
home in—a Greek or Neo-Platonic cosmos. In the world of 
Pascal, faith itself became a much more desperate gamble 
and a much more daring leap. 

Consequently, the struggle between faith and reason 
gave rise to a more profound psychological discord within 
man’s being. Despite the arguments of theologians during 
the Middle Ages about matters of faith and reason, those 
ages never experienced this division of man within himself. 
In the Divine Comedy, Dante is led by Virgil, the symbol 
of h uman reason, through the depths of Hell and up the 
slopes of Purgatory; but when it comes to the journey 
thro ugh Heaven, the sphere of the elect who have made it 
there only by God’s grace, Virgil disappears and Beatrice, 
symbol of Divine Revelation, takes over as guide. Reason, 
in short, guides us to faith, and faith takes over where rea¬ 
son leaves off—such is the happy and harmonious lot of man 
in the ordered, crystalline cosmos of Dante. But the universe 

11 % 


of Pascal does not present us with the numerous similitudes 
and analogies to the Divine Being on which the medieval 
philosophers had hung their faith, as on so many pegs. In 
Pascal’s universe one has to search much more desperately 
to find any signposts that would lead the mind in the di¬ 
rection of faith. And where Pascal finds such a signpost, 
significantly enough, is in the radically miserable condition 
of man himself. How is it that this creature who shows ev¬ 
erywhere, in comparison with other animals and with na¬ 
ture itself, such evident marks of grandeur and power is at 
the same time so feeble and miserable? We can only con¬ 
clude, Pascal says, that man is rather like a ruined or dis¬ 
inherited nobleman cast out from the kingdom which ought 
to have been his. Thus he takes as his fundamental premise 
the image of man as a disinherited being. 

Consequently, the psychology of a Pascal will be differ¬ 
ent from that of a St. Augustine. Pascal’s observations of 
the human condition are among the most “negative” that 
have ever been made. Readers of Sartre who have protested 
that his psychology is too morbid or sordid, and possibly 
therefore only an expression of the contemporary Paris 
school of despair, would do well to look into Pascal: they 
will find his view of our ordinary h uman lot every bit as 
mordant and clinical as Sartre’s. “The natural misfortune 
of our mortal and feeble condition,” Pascal says, “is so 
wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can con¬ 
sole us.” Men escape from considering it closely by means 
of the two sovereign anodynes of “habit” and “diversion.” 
Man chases a bouncing ball or rides to hounds after a flee¬ 
ing a nim a l ; or the ball and fleeing game are pursued 
through the labyrinth of social intrigue and amusement; 
anything, so long as he manages to escape from himself. Or, 
solidly ensconced in habit the good citizen, surrounded by 
wife and family, secure in his job, need not cast his eye on 
the quality of his days as they pass, and see how each day 
entombs some hope or dream forgotten and how the next 
morning wakes him to a round that becomes ever narrower 
and more congealed. Both habit and diversion, so long as 
they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlorn- 



ness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.” 
Religion is the only possible cure for this desperate malady 
that is nothing other than our ordinary mortal existence it¬ 

Where classical philosophers discuss the nature of man 
—as Aristotle does in his Ethics or St. Thomas in his treatise 
on man in the second part of the Sumrm Theologica—mch 
talk seems to us nowadays to smack of the textbook: the 
creature the thinkers are discussing may be man, but he 
does not resemble us in the least. In what Pascal says about 
the human condition, however, we recognize ourselves all 
too painfully. As a psychologist, he is a contemporary. 

Perhaps Pascal was a better psychologist than were the 
philosophers because he himself was no philosopher. He 
has left us in one brief remark his final judgment of the 
value of philosophy itself: it is, he tells us, “not worth an 
hour’s trouble.” And considering the quality of Pascal’s 
mind and his deepest interests as a man, this is an entirely 
reasonable judgment. To put it somewhat paradoxically, he 
was too intelligent to be a professional philosopher. To have 
put himself through the slow and laborious course of train¬ 
ing in any academic philosophy would have been to hobble 
dreadfully his marvelous intelligence, and in any case it was 
unnecessary for him to do so in order to know what he ul¬ 
timately needed to know as a man. In this respect he re¬ 
sembles Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, philosophers who went 
beyond philosophy and so were able to see how it looked 
from the outside, from the point of view of religion and 
art, in their cases, from that of science, in his. Kierkegaard 
and Nietzsche did possess a technical grounding in philoso¬ 
phy, however, while Pascal’s education was scientific and 
humanistic. He had read some of the classical philosophers, 
like the Stoics, but apparently only to find out what they 
had to say about the condition of man and not to follow 
their metaphysics, for which he had very little taste. His 
passionate interest as a youth was in science, and he was 
one of the most precocious scientific geniuses that ever 
lived, making f undam ental discoveries in mathematics be¬ 
fore he was twenty-one. 



After the death of his father, Pascal, still a young man, 
came into a fairly comfortable inheritance and was able to 
cut something of a figure in the world. We know, at any 
rate, that he kept for a while a coach-and-six, which was 
enough to establish him as a gentleman and man of the 
world. In order to understand the min d of Pascal we have 
to imagine him entering that social world of Paris in the 
reign of Louis XIV, when the observation and study of man 
was the consuming passion of worldly and acute minds like 
Saint-Simon and La Rochefoucauld, and recognizing that 
here was a different kind of datum from that he had dealt 
with in his mathematical and physical researches. And not 
only was the material different, but it required an altogether 
different kind of intelligence for its comprehension. Pascal, 
unlike Spinoza, was too intelligent not to recognize that do¬ 
ing geometry was altogether different from doing the study 
of man. 

Out of this realization came his famous distinc tion be¬ 
tween the mathematical and the intuitive mind —Tesprit de 
gSometrie and Tesprit de finesse . It would not be too much 
of an exaggeration to say that the whole of Bergsons phi¬ 
losophy is virtually contained in the few pages that Pascal 
dedicates to this fundamental distinction. French culture 
has in these matters a marvelous sense of conservation. The 
most inbred of cultures, it is nevertheless among the richest 
because it preserves and elaborates what it has in its own 
kitchen. (This is also the spirit of French cooking, which 
does not throw away anything but uses it to create a stock— 
the f undam ental element in cooking, Escoffier tells us—or 
else to throw into a pot au feu that can be kept simmering 
indefinitely.) Because it kept sight of Pascal’s distinction, 
French culture never quite surrendered itself to the clear 
and distinct ideas of Descartes. Now, the mathematical 
mind, as Pascal describes it, is defined precisely by its pre¬ 
occupation with clear and distinct ideas, from which it is 
able to extract by deduction an infinite number of logical 
consequences. But the material with which the intuitive 
mind is dealing is so concrete and complex that it cannot 
be reduced to clear and distinct ideas that can be set forth 



in a few simple axioms. In a human situation the waters are 
usually muddy and the air a little foggy; and whatever the 
intuitive person—whether he be a politician, courtier, or 
lover—can perceive in that situation is not by virtue of well- 
defined logical ideas. Quite the contrary: such ideas are 
more likely than not to impede his vision. What Pascal had 
really seen, then, in order to have arrived at this distinction 
was this: that man hims elf is a creature of contradictions 
and ambivalences such as pure logic can never grasp. This 
was something the philosophers had not yet grasped. 

By delimiting a sphere of intuition over against that 
of logic, Pascal had of course set limits to human reason. 
Perhaps nowhere did he use his own esprit de finesse more 
shrewdly than in his estimate of the value of reason, and 
perhaps no writer has ever balanced more judiciously the 
claims and counterclaims of reason: As a mathematical 
genius he had known all the power and glory of reason, 
but he also saw its corresponding feebleness and limita¬ 
tions. Three centuries before Heidegger showed, through a 
learned and laborious exegesis, that Kant’s doctrine of the 
limitations of human reason really rests on the finitude of 
our human existence, Pascal clearly saw that the feebleness 
of our reason is part and parcel of the feebleness of our 
human condition generally. Above all, reason does not get 
at the heart of religious experience. As Pascal had very little 
use for formal philosophy, so he had even less for formal 
or rational theology, whose supreme task is the fabrication 
of rational proofs for the existence of God. Such proofs, 
Pascal held, are beside the point: one day they seem valid 
to us, the next day not, and if we postpone our salvation 
until the proofs are satisfactory we shall stand forever 
wavering from one foot to the other. There are today, Pas¬ 
cal said, extremely intelligent minds who find the proofs for 
the existence of God entirely convincing, and equally intel¬ 
ligent minds that find them misconceived or inconclusive; 
and each side suspects the other of bad faith. But the fact 
is that the proofs convince those who want to be convinced, 
fail to convince those who do not want to be convinced, 
and so are not really proofs at all. In any case, God as the 



object of a rigorous demonstration, even supposing such a 
demonstration were forthcoming, would have nothing to do 
with the living needs of religion. He would become as neu¬ 
tral an entity as the abstract circle or; triangle about which 
geometricians reason. It is here that Pascal raises his famous 
outcry: “Not the God of the philosophers, but the God of 
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” 

He himself had had a religious experience, connected 
with what he thought to be a miraculous recovery from an 
illness, and so overpowering had been the visitation that he 
wrote down a note about the experience and sewed it into 
his clothing, as if it were a secret that he had to keep as 
close as possible to himself and never forget. Whatever we 
may think of the validity of such experiences, for Pascal 
himself this lightning from heaven needed no proofs: it was 
of the order of life itself, not of rational theology. His life 
thereafter turned round that single and shattering experi¬ 
ence, and he dedicated that life to religion; particularly to 
an attempt at a great explanation and defense of the Chris¬ 
tian religion, which he never completed and of which we 
have only those glorious ruins, the PensSes . Another equally 
drastic experience, this time rather negative than positive, 
was equally decisive for his thinking. While he was driving 
by the Seine one day, his carriage suddenly swerved, the 
door was flung open, and Pascal almost catapulted down 
the embankment to his death. The arbitrariness and sud¬ 
denness of this near accident became for him another light¬ 
ning flash of revelation. Thereafter he saw Nothingness as 
a possibility that lurked, so to speak, beneath our feet, a 
gulf and an abyss into which we might tumble at any mo¬ 
ment. No other writer has expressed more powerfully than 
Pascal the radical contingency that lies at the heart of hu¬ 
man existence—a contingency that may at any moment hurl 
us all unsuspecting into non-being. Death does not arrive 
punctually by appointment. The idea of Nothingness or 
Nothing had up to this time played no role at all in. Western 
philosophy. At the very beginning of Greek philosophy, 
Parmenides had warned against following the path of non- 
being, for non-being, he said, cannot even be thought. Dur- 



ing the ages of Scholastic philosophy the Nothing, nihil, 
had been a purely conceptual entity, an empty abstraction 
that lay at the farthest reaches of thought. But for Pascal 
it was no longer an abstraction but an experience. At a cer¬ 
tain moment of his existence. Nothingness had suddenly 
and drastically revealed itself to him. Thereafter, Pascal 
searched everywhere for evidences of the contingent in hu¬ 
man existence—in the length of Cleopatra’s nose, which al¬ 
tered the destinies of Mark Antony and the Roman Empire, 
in the grain of sand in Cromwell’s kidney that put an end 
to his military dictatorship. And long before Heidegger and 
Sartre introduced their jawbreaking names for all the cate¬ 
gories that define human contingency, Pascal had seen that 
to be bom is itself for the individual the prime contingency, 
since it means to be bom at this time, this place, of these 
parents and this country—all of these brutally given facts 
on which his life has to seek to found itself. 

Nothingness, for Pascal, opens as it were both downward 
and upward. He lived in the age of the microscope and the 
telescope, when the tight, tidy, finite cosmos of Aristotle and 
the medieval thinkers was being expanded in both direc¬ 
tions, toward the infinitesimally minute and the infinitely 
great. We go downward, cleaving matter and space, and 
finding the unbelievable and minute organizations of life at 
lower and lower levels; and always there are things beyond 
these that exceed our comprehension because of their mi¬ 
nuteness. Or we go outward into space and find the universe 
dwarfing us by its vastness. Man thus occupies a middle 
position in the universe, as Pascal saw, between the infini¬ 
tesimal and the infinite: he is an All in relation to Nothing¬ 
ness, a Nothingness in relation to the All. This middle posi¬ 
tion of man is the final and dominant fact of the human 
condition with which Pascal leaves us, and it suggests per¬ 
fectly what we can expect of the range and powers of man’s 
reason. It is also a perfect image of the finitude of human 
existence, invaded as it were on both sides by the Nothing. 
Man is his finitude. And if we add a consideration of the 
infinite duration of time to this predominately spatial and 



material image, we get Pascal’s ultimate judgment on the 
nature of human existence: 

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed 
up in the eternity before and after, the little space which 
I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity 
of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me 
not, I am frightened, and am astonished being here rather 
than there, why now rather than then. 

Reading this, we are no longer in the world of a Tertullian 
or a St. Augustine, in the violent fervor of an expanding 
and conquering Christianity; nor in the Romanesque world 
of a Peter Damiani or St. Bernard when the most naive 
and beautiful works of Christian art were being created; 
nor in the world in which Duns Scotus debated the posi¬ 
tions taken by St. Thomas and in which Christian faith was 
so strong that it could make a miraculous marriage with 
the philosophy of Aristotle. No; it is our world, the modem 
world, that Pascal depicts, and reading him we enter that 
world as our home just because we are as homeless there 
as he was. 

Pascal died in 1662. There followed a century of such 
blinding light, the century of the Enlightenment, that his 
example seemed not to be needed and so was forgotten. 
The light of the Enlightenment became thus its own dark¬ 
ness. The accomplishments of this extraordinary era cannot 
be undervalued. In that century the conquests in mathe¬ 
matics and physics were extended; the universe of Newton 
became a consolidated conquest and, due to the marvelous 
fertility and ingenuity of mathematical analysis, seemed to 
afford answers to all the problems of nature. The great vic¬ 
tories won by reason in mathematics and physics suggested 
inevitably its extension into all other fields of human expe¬ 
rience in order to dispel the shadows of ancient superstition: 
into law, custom, government, and history. The idea of 
Progress was announced not only as fact, but as a law of 
history. The perfectibility of human nature was to be real¬ 
ized through the universal application of reason. The phi- 



losopher Condillac outlined a scheme of universal history, 
whose guiding thread was the progress of man from dark¬ 
ness to light—a progress that had gone steadily forward in 
the past and would continue so indefinitely. Philosophers 
became critics, attacking the medieval barbarisms of the so¬ 
ciety around them. The century found its symbol and sum¬ 
mation in that curious episode at the height of the French 
Revolution when the goddess of Reason, in the person of a 
well-known actress, was enthroned in the Cathedral of 
Notre Dame. Our Lady of Reason in the temple of the 
Queen of Heaven—an ironical switch that might have sug¬ 
gested to anyone faintly familiar with the personality and 
history of goddesses that extremely stormy weather lay 
ahead, and not only for France but for European civiliza¬ 
tion as a whole. 

But there were also some unhappy souls in the universe 
of Newton and of the goddess of Reason, and to these we 
must now lend an ear. The first voices to be heard are, 
as we might expect, those of the poets. Poets are witnesses 
to Being before the philosophers are able to bring it into 
thought. And what these particular poets were struggling 
to reveal, in this case, were the very conditions of Being 
that are ours historically today. They were sounding, in 
poetic terms, the premonitory chords of our own era. 


Chapter Six 

Anyone who has read Swift’s Gullivers Travels probably 
will not have forgotten the episode of the voyage to 
Laputa, which is among the most bizarre of that great and 
fantastic book. Laputa is an island that floats in the air. 
It is driven by the power of an immense magnet and navi¬ 
gated by means of magnetic lines of force, which to our 
latter-day minds suggests something like a radar apparatus. 
Swifts technology was not so advanced that he could im¬ 
agine machinery that would enable the inhabitants of the 
Zeppelinlike island to cut themselves off altogether from the 
earth: the lines of force used to navigate by are still those 
of the earth, and so to that degree the Laputans are earth- 
bound. Nevertheless, they are the nearest things to crea¬ 
tures of the air that Gulliver encounters anywhere on his 
long and varied journey, and their character belongs as 
much as possible to the aerial element. 

What this aery quality in their nature consists of, we are 
not long in finding out. When the shipwrecked Gulliver is 
rescued and brought up to this island, he finds the inhabit¬ 
ants the oddest-looking creatures he has ever seen. Their 
eyes do not focus on the person or object before them; in¬ 
stead one eye is turned upward as if in perpetual contem¬ 
plation of the stars, and the other turned inward in empty 
and vacuous introversion. Their garments are decorated 
with emblems of the sun, moon, stars, and of various 
musical instruments. Mathematics and mathematical as¬ 
tronomy are the subjects to which we would expect these 



aery creatures to devote themselves, since those are the 
most abstract studies, the most detached from ordinary ter¬ 
restrial claims. But why music, the most directly emotional 
of the arts? Emotion, of course, is not the aspect of music 
that Swift had in mind; he meant the Laputans' music to 
have the significance it had in the Pythagorean or Platonic 
tradition, when it was thought of as a purely mathematical 
study, a branch of applied arithmetic. Laputa might thus 
be called the kingdom of the pure Platonists, and Swift's 
imagination gave this people a local habitation to match 
the spirit of its Platonism: an island that Boats in the blue. 
That vigorous coarseness of Swift's temperament, which ex¬ 
pressed itself even in the name he chose for this place, la 
puta, suggests and may even have been inspired by Lu¬ 
ther's equally vigorous and coarse exclamation, “The whore 

Because they control the air over the land below, the La- 
putans hold subject the ordinary earthly people in their 
vicinity. The subjects, however, seem to be a good deal 
happier than their rulers. The Laputans in fact, despite 
their power, are a dreary and sad lot. These cerebral people 
are incapable of the ordinary human interchange involved 
in conversation. When they go into society they have to be 
accompanied by a servant boy carrying a stick at the end 
of which is a bladder filled with pebbles or dried peas; 
these rattle as the boy strikes the mouth or the ears of his 
master, as the case may be, to signal him when he is to talk 
and when to listen while conversing with another Laputan. 
The absent-minded intellectual might otherwise drift off 
into speculation and forget altogether about the person in 
front of him. At dinner in Laputa, Gulliver finds the food 
is served cut in all manner of geometrical shapes. When a 
tailor comes to fit Gulliver with a suit of clothes, he takes 
the measurements by means of sextant, quadrant, and 
other scientific gadgets; then brings back a very ill-fitting 
garment. Geometry evidently does not provide a very ac¬ 
curate means of measuring the organic human form; an or¬ 
dinary tape measure, made flexible in order to follow the 
contours of the body, would do better. On a visit to their 



academy of sciences Gulliver finds the Laputans engaged 
in all manner of fantastic and harebrained schemes of re¬ 
search. Actually, these researches might not seem so fan¬ 
tastic to us today; they do have analogies in contemporary 
scientific invention. Clearly, we are further advanced in the 
ways of Laputa than Swift’s imagination led him to be. 

We need not go into all the details by which Swift visited 
his scorn upon these abstract minds. In fact, nothing 
very much happens during Gullivers sojourn among the 
Laputans that is not overshadowed in ones memory simply 
by the weird image of the people themselves. However, one 
tiny incident serves to set the whole episode in its proper 
human perspective. The Laputan wives are not very happy 
with their Platonist husbands; and shortly before Gulliver’s 
arrival in the kingdom there had been a great scandal at 
court because the wife of the prime minister had run away, 
despite all efforts to restrain her, to the mainland below to 
take up with an old footman who got drunk regularly and 
beat her. Women as creatures of nature will prefer passion 
to pure reason, even if the passion is accompanied by 
drunkenness and blows. A beating is at least a recognition 
of one’s own individual existence. 

In this part of Gulliver*s Travels Swift does not seem in 
the least to be trying to play the prophet. His temperament 
was too downright, positive, and passionately concrete to 
bother very much about assuming the mantle of prophecy. 
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof—and he had 
enough to do to put up with the imbecility of English poli¬ 
tics and to bear with the tedium of life in Ireland, where 
he had been sent, as he himself puts it, to die like a rat in 
a hole. Nevertheless, this episode from Gulliver (a book 
that appeared in 1726) can be taken as a forecast of the 
cultural history of western Europe, or at least of one sizable 
slice of that history, over the next hundred and fifty years. 
The prophet’s power is in proportion to his character, and 
the testimony of Swift gains all the more force in coming 
from the kind of man he was. Were there any of the high 
and exotic color of romanticism about Swift, we might set 
down his prophetic diatribe as the eccentric product of a 



romantic temperament unlucky enough to be bom before 
its time. But Swift is a great writer of prose because he 
wrote prose and not something else: his is perhaps the best 
example in Eng lish literature of simple, straightforward, 
even plain prose; and the temperament of the man matched 
the temper of his writing. Nowhere did he espouse any ir¬ 
rational attitude toward life; he repeatedly extolled the 
virtues of reason, but it was always down-to-earth and 
practical reason that he had in mind. He had little taste— 
and little capacity, for that matter—for the more abstract 
exercises of reason: the Laputa episode of GuUivefs Travels 
might almost be taken as Swift’s final vengeance upon the 
examiners at Trinity College who failed him because he did 
not do well enough in logic. Coming from such a prosy and 
non-romantic temperament, the image of Laputa is proba¬ 
bly the most powerfully prophetic we could find. The men 
and movements of which it does stand as a prediction will 
find themselves at times in the desperate quandary of the 
prime minister’s wife, ready to throw themselves into the 
arms of a drunken footman if that is the only way out of 
the sterile kingdom of reason. In the search for the Diony¬ 
sian, after all, one cannot always be expected to be bound 
by good taste. 

Who, then, are these men and movements that Swift 


The whole movement of Romanticism, which not long 
after the appearance of Swift’s work thrust up its first shoots 
in England, is at bottom an attempt to escape from Laputa. 
However we choose to characterize Romanticism—as a pro¬ 
test of the individual against the universal laws of classi¬ 
cism, or as the protest of feeling against reason, or again 
as the protest on behalf of nature against the encroach¬ 
ments of an industrial society—what is clear is that it is, 
in every case, a drive toward that fullness and naturalness 
of Being that the modem world threatens to let sink into 
oblivion. The Romantic movement was not confined to one 



country, but passed like a great spasm of energy and en¬ 
thusiasm over the whole of Europe—England, France, Ger¬ 
many, Italy—finding somewhat different national expres¬ 
sions in each country but always preserving the same inner 
characteristics. Among its English representatives, the fig¬ 
ures of three poets—Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge—de¬ 
serve our passing attention. 

Blake is recognized easily enough as the poet against the 
industrial revolution. The imagery of wheels, forges, fur¬ 
naces, smoke, and Satanic mills is strewn throughout his 
poems. But he was a poet of considerably more intellectual 
substance than an early, rather patronizing essay by T. S. 
Eliot has led most of our current literati to think. Blake was 
not merely a critic of industrial society as such, but of 
that particular attitude of mind from which industrialism 

The atoms of Democritus 

And Newtons particles of light 

Are sands upon the Red sea shore 

Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright. 

Mills and furnaces are evil, to Blake, because they are the 
external manifestations of the abstract and mechanical 
mind which means the death of man. Robert Graves has 
argued that in his prophetic books Blake was seeking to 
resurrect an ancient bardic tradition dating back to the 
days of pre-Christian Britain. This may very well be the 
case, but I think we should not neglect to observe that 
Blake calls these books ‘prophetic,” that prophecy has to 
do with the future, and that Blake, as a genuine seer, was 
concerned with the vision of what man might become. One 
of these works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell > is of 
particular significance here because in a good many ways 
it anticipates Nietzsche, as it also anticipates a good deal 
of the psychologist Jung in our century. “Drive your plow 
over the bones of the dead” is not the aphorism of a man 
who is seeking merely to hearken back to the “green & 
pleasant land” of ancient Britain. If man marries his hell 
to his heaven, his evil to his good, Blake holds, he will be¬ 
come a creature such as the earth has not yet seen. Nietz- 


sche put the same insight paradoxically: “Mankind must 
become better and more evil.” 

This point is worth emphasizing here at the outset, in 
connection with Blake, because Romanticism did in many 
of its manifestations take on the trappings of a revival of 
or a return to the past, to the Gothic ages or Homeric 
Greece, or to any past age of enchantment that seemed to 
stand outside the tawdriness of the present; in some quar¬ 
ters the movement has almost come to be defined in those 
terms. But basically, although they were sometimes uncon¬ 
scious of it, the Romantics were moved by a vision of the 
future, of human possibilities, rather than of the past; of 
what man might become rather than of what he actually 
was or had been. Hence the vitality among them of the 
tradition which takes the poet to be a genuine seer. 

Wordsworth is so respectable a figure—we can see him 
almost as a gaitered and benign English clergyman—that 
he helps us to avoid the error of locating the inner meaning 
of Romanticism in a search for exoticism, a gaudy parade 
of colored lights and high romance. With the exception of 
the German poet Holderlin, Wordsworth was probably the 
most philosophic poet of Romanticism; and it is to be re¬ 
gretted that no English philosopher has made the kind of 
commentary on his poems that Heidegger has made on 
those of Holderlin. Whitehead, who owes much of his own 
philosophy to Wordsworth’s feeling for nature, has thrown 
out a few brilliant asides on his work, and that is all we 
have. Wordsworth was not a philosophical poet because he 
knew something about Platonism and a little about German 
Transcendentalism that he had picked up from Coleridge, 
and expressed these bits of philosophy gnomically in some 
of his best-known poems. Nor is he at his final philosophical 
depth when he criticizes, and quite acutely, the intellect 
as something that severs us from the immediate feeling for 

Our meddling intellect 

Misshapes the beauteous forms of things: 

We murder to dissect. 

Wordsworth is not at his most philosophic when he is being 



pithy or gnomic, or otherwise drawing an explicit moral. 
A deeper philosophy resides in some of his poems in which 
he was able, almost miraculously, to locate man in nature, 
to reveal his being as a being-in. Thus one of the great 
poems, “Resolution and Independence,” begins with the 
magnificent lines: 

There was a roaring in the winds all night, 

The rain came heavily and fell in floods. 

The poet wanders over the moors, encounters an old man 
who is gathering leeches at a pond, hears his story, and 
then concludes, moved by the old man’s example, with 
some stoical comments on the necessity of facing life with 
courage. But what sticks in the mind is the marvelous way 
in which the leech gatherer is located in nature, along with 
stone and tree and moor. Whitehead called this quality the 
togetherness-of-things, and he claimed to have come by this 
philosophical insight through studying the poets of nature 
like Wordsworth. But Whiteheads expression is not yet 
adequate: it is not that man is a thing essentially together 
with other things in the natural landscape: rather, before 
he is a thing, he is-in; his being is a being-in before it is 
the being of a thing. 

Wordsworth himself never expressed this meaning con¬ 
ceptually; perhaps he had not arrived at the point of grasp¬ 
ing it conceptually, perhaps this meaning of Being cannot 
very well be grasped conceptually. But it is there, revealed 
in his poetry; and it is indeed what gives positive me aning 
to all those other poems in which he is simply moralizing, 
protesting that urban man—by which he means modem 
man—by cutting himself off from nature has cut himself off 
from the roots of his own Being. 

Though he was immensely more learned philosophically 
than Wordsworth, nevertheless in this particular respect 
Coleridge’s work is of less philosophic significance. In his 
most successful and famous poems—such as The Ancient 
MarinerRubla Elian, Christabel—he exhibits chiefly the 
“romance” aspect of Romanticism, the freedom of the im¬ 
agination to find its materials outside the stringent catego- 



ries of neoclassicism. But in one poem, and a very great 
one. Dejection: An Ode, Coleridge produced something so 
modem that we can call it existential even though it was 
written before the Existentialists. The ode is a lament on his 
failing powers as a poet, powers that have dried up because 
Coleridge is no longer able to find joy in nature. These pow¬ 
ers are identical with the power to be in communion with 
nature. What makes Coleridge’s statement of the matter so 
impressive is that he himself participates in the feeling; 
Wordsworth’s protests against the severance of man from 
nature were laments for his fellow men who were being 
thus cut off, not for himself—his own powers of communion 
with nature seemed to have survived intact. But Coleridge, 
who was himself one of the wretched—cut off, forlorn, mis¬ 
erable, derelict—was the first to explore this thoroughly 
modem mood from the inside. What happens to man when 
he is thus severed from nature? Here Coleridge encounters, 
in thoroughly existential fashion, anxiety itself. He cannot 
pin down this anxiety, cannot attach it to any definite ob¬ 
ject, event, or person; it is the revelation of void or non- 

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear, 

A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief, 

Which finds no natural outlet, no relief. 

In word, or sigh, or tear— 

All the German idealism with which poor Coleridge’s head 
was crammed had nothing to say to him about this experi¬ 
ence; it did not even provide the terms necessary for its 
philosophic comprehension. Kierkegaard had not yet intro¬ 
duced the analysis of dread into philosophy. Coleridge the 
poet, however, saw and knew before Coleridge the phi¬ 

Coleridge’s melancholy condition in this respect is pre¬ 
cisely that of Faust at the beginning of Goethe’s drama. 
Both are in or near the condition of breakdown, trapped 
in a paralysis of feeling in which everything has turned to 
dust and ashes, including the meddling intellect that has 


tyrannized over both. Coleridge has lost life to German 

by abstruse research to steal 
From my own nature all the natural man; 

Faust to a reckless attempt to master all of human learning, 
which Goethe dismisses in the final statement of intellectual 
disenchantment: “Gray is aU theory , green is life’s glowing 
tree.” Coleridge’s poem is so intensely personal that we can¬ 
not take this parallel with Goethe to be a case of literary 
imitation: it was due rather to a kind of experience that 
had become momentous for the men of that period, as it 
still is today. Midway in his life—and it was a long life— 
Goethe insisted on detaching himself from the movement 
of Romanticism. So far as that gesture applied to the senti¬ 
mentality of an early work like Werther it was certainly 
valid; but the theme of Faust had laid hold of Goethe in 
his very earliest days, when he was at his most romantic, 
and it was a theme that continued to occupy him through¬ 
out his life. Since his greatest work deals with the central 
problem of Romanticism, it cannot be left out of any ac¬ 
count of the movement, and indeed Goethe’s final handling 
of the problem, in the poem, was the culmination of all 
his youthful experience of Romanticism. 

We have particularly to call attention to Faust , in this 
connection, because it deals with the very problem with 
which Nietzsche was later to wrestle, both in his own life 
and in his philosophy: How is man to be bom out of con¬ 
temporary despair into a more complete and vigorous being 
than history has yet known? Goethe never uses Nietzsche’s 
word Superman, but there can be no doubt that what we 
encounter in the Second Part of Faust (completed just be¬ 
fore the poet’s death) is Goethe’s own conception of a 
superior mortal, in fact a Superman, for in his old age Faust 
has almost transcended his humanity. At the be ginn i n g of 
the play, with the well of life gone dry inside him, Faust 
decides to commit suicide and is just raising the poison gob¬ 
let to his lips when he is stopped by hearing from the street 
an Easter hymn to Christ’s resurrection. At the moment of 



crisis it is the remembrance of Christianity that intervenes: 
Faust-Goethe is still tied to the collective being of mankind 
for whom the symbol of resurrection is inevitably Christ. 
Since he is not to commit suicide, how then is Faust to be 
reborn? Mephistopheles appears; Faust makes his pact 
with the Devil and from a withered old scholar is trans¬ 
formed into a radiant and handsome youth. It is the same 
solution to the problem of human energy that Blake 
preached: the marriage of hell and heaven, the pact with 
one’s own devil; or, in Nietzsches terms, the marriage of 
ones good and evil in order to arrive at the point that is 
beyond good and evil because it is the source of them both 
—the Self in its craving to live and grow. 

The original Faust was an old medieval scholar who 
turned to magic and the black arts; and in Marlowe’s ver¬ 
sion, Doctor Faustus, Faust is the demoniacal magician who 
seeks power over popes and emperors. Goethe internalized 
Faust’s quest, indeed turned him into a man of his own 
time, yet the original overtones of magic and alchemy still 
surround this character. Goethe himself had read a good 
deal of alchemy at one time, and part of the original fascina¬ 
tion of the historical Faust, for him, was the dark halo of 
magic around him, the sign of a craving to transcend or¬ 
dinary humanity. Now, magic and alchemy are perfectly 
appropriate symbols for our aspirations toward freedom. 
The problem of free will does not present itself to us in 
life in the cool and sterilized abstractions of the philoso¬ 
phers. To free oneself, to break the chains of a situation, 
whether inner or outer, that imprisons one is to experience 
something like the magical power that commands things to 
do its bidding. The figure of the magician is, as it were, the 
primitive image of human freedom. Scholars tell us that the 
ideograms in some of the older Chinese writings that are 
usually translated “men of virtue” might be more accurately 
rendered as "men of magic”; and indeed the sage, the 
virtuous man, he who could command himself and there¬ 
fore others, must have struck earlier mankind as something 
of a magician. In any case, magic and alchemy recur 
throughout the whole course of the Romantic movement, 


always as the deep archetypal symbols of aspiration toward 
a higher and fuller level of Being. Even Goethe in his old 
age, by then the cool and classic Olympian, introduces into 
the Second Part of Faust an alchemical scene in which 
a little man, homunculus—Is he perhaps future man?—is 
brewed in a retort. 

It is in later French Romanticism, as it passes over into 
Symbolism, that this spiritual craving of poets for magic and 
alchemy becomes more noticeable. Baudelaire was the most 
remarkable figure in this phase of the movement, the initia¬ 
tor or precursor of almost everything that we know as “mod¬ 
em poetry.” He was the first poet of the city, as others be¬ 
fore him had been poets of the countryside. As such, he 
sounds a new and more extreme note of human alienation. 
Where Wordsworth had been a rural man, observing and 
condemning the city but always writing about it from out¬ 
side, Baudelaire is inside the city, the swarming anthill of 
alien and faceless men, in whose streets he is utterly a 
stranger. Romantic melancholy, as we have seen in the case 
of Coleridge, is nothing less than mans discovery of his 
own estrangement from Being; in Baudelaire this becomes 
Spleen , and takes on the dimensions of revolt. It is not only 
a social revolt against the materialism of bourgeois society, 
but a metaphysical revolt against the kind of world created 
by the positivism and scientism of the present age. The poet 
does not find reality in such a world, he must search for it 
in some other hidden sphere of Being. Hence, Baudelaire’s 
doctrine of “correspondences according to which the poet 
must seek out the arcane and obscure images in nature, 
somewhat like one of the ancient astrologers or diviners. 
Poetry is no longer an art merely of making verses, but a 
magical means of arriving at some truer and more real 
sphere of Being. Poetry becomes a substitute for a religion. 

For this last attitude, of course, Baudelaire and his fol¬ 
lowers have been very much taken to task by some French 
Catholic critics. Such critics are certainly right in their judg¬ 
ment that poetry would not have developed these extraor¬ 
dinary aspirations if man had remained within his historic 
container, Christian faith. But it will not do to lecture these 


poets smugly, as if they were delinquent children who have 
run away from home. The fact is that there was no home 
for them to stay in. They themselves did not create the 
human condition into which they were thrown by the nine¬ 
teenth century; they merely experienced it as their fatality, 
while others, less sensitive, were not aware of what had hap¬ 
pened in the world. We are not dealing here with a mere 
aesthetic perversion, but with a genuine human revolt—a 
point that becomes indisputable in the case of the poet 
Rimbaud, whose revolt was in fact so genuine that the poet 
literally paid for it with his life. It is a mistake to consider 
the Romantic poets as excessive and self-indulgent aes¬ 
thetes; for them the value of the aesthetic attitude was al¬ 
ways metaphysical and concerned with the total human 

It seems a very long step from the serenity of Words¬ 
worth to the violence of Rimbaud, who heralded “the era 
of assassins.” Yet the filiation is direct; only a few conditions 
had to change or grow more acute to produce, instead of 
the earlier, the later Romantic. The rest of mankind might 
be cut off from contact with nature, but Wordsworth, as 
we have seen, remained secure in the belief that he at least 
possessed the mana and was in touch. He did indeed have 
that mana, and though the possession of it may have been 
fleeting, Wordsworths self-conceit was such that he never 
perceived himself at any time as being without it. Hence 
he never shared the despair of his fellow Romantics. But 
the poet has only to lose the mana, or the security of his 
belief in himself as never being without it, and he finds 
himself sharing the forlorn and derelict fate of the rest of 
mankind. His despair has only to become desperation, and 
to ally itself with a violent will to power, a will to reconquer 
by the most extreme measures if necessary, the lost province 
of Being from which modem man has been extruded—and 
we have Rimbaud. Rimbaud remained true to his vision: he 
ended by giving up poetry and leaving Europe—a civiliza¬ 
tion he thought doomed—to go off and run guns in Abys¬ 
sinia. The demands he had made of poetry, as a revelation 
of an unknown truth, were too severe; in the end he spoke 



of it with disgust as “one of my follies.” In any case, it 
became irrelevant to his final project, the forging of the 
Self. For the man who seeks to transcend humanity, poetry 
is not enough: it will only lead back to the squabbles of 
sectarian literati or the exegeses of dry-as-dust professors, 
and the poet will be caught up again in the web of a banal 
and mechanical civilization. Rimbaud burst like a rocket in 
the sky of French poetry, and then by the very force of his 
trajectory was carried beyond it. But in the course of this 
brilliant flight he brought all the hidden problems of Ro¬ 
manticism to the fore. 

For one thing, Rimbauds unconditional break with 
Western civilization—the civilization of the white man—was 
the sign of a break within this civilization. Rimbaud was 
thus among the first of the creative artists to announce 
primitivism as one of the goals of his art and of his life. 
From Gauguin to D. H. Lawrence primitivism has been 
such a varied and rich source in modem art that academi¬ 
cians or rationalists would be ill advised to dismiss it out of 
hand as a mere symptom of “decadence.” One might ask, 
in any case, whether it is not the civilization itself that has 
become decadent rather than those creative individuals 
within it who straggle to rediscover the wellsprings of hu¬ 
man vitality. With Rimbaud primitivism was far from being 
a sentimental d6cor for the spirit, an illicit longing after the 
South Seas and maidens in sarongs; rather it was a pas¬ 
sionate and genuine straggle to get back to the primitive— 
which is to say, primary—sources of Being and vision. We 
need not approve of the particular means Rimbaud used 
for this in order to acknowledge the validity and necessity 
of his task. Rimbaud surrendered himself in the end to the 
demon of the will to action, thus proving himself a true 
child of Western civilization. He does not seem to have 
found any other course possible. While following it, how¬ 
ever, he revealed the tremendous potential of energy and 
action that Romanticism harbored explosively within itself. 
Romantic melancholy was no mere matter of languor or the 
vapors; nor was it an outbreak of personal neurosis, im¬ 
potence, or sickness among a few individuals; rather it was 



a revelation to modem man of the human condition into 
which he had fallen, a condition that is nothing less than 
the estrangement from Being itself. Once having lost con¬ 
tact with the natural world, however, man catches a dizzy 
and intoxicating glimpse of human possibilities, of what 
man might become, in comparison with which the old 
myths of the magician and the sorcerer seem pallid indeed. 
Rimbaud was the poet of these possibilities as Nietzsche 
was to be their thinker. 


From Paris to Moscow or St. Petersburg is a long jour¬ 
ney; and it looks like even a longer step from later French 
Romanticism and Symbolism to the realistic fiction of the 
great Russian writers. It is indeed a complete change of 
literary climate. What one prizes above all in the Russian 
writers is their direct grasp of life, their radical scorn 
of the artifices and artificialities of literary form and sym¬ 
bol, which became so consuming a preoccupation among 
French poets. In his What is Art? Tolstoy has some pages 
passionately denouncing Baudelaire and his followers as 
decadent and artificial writers. Yet for all this difference in 
their attitude toward the nature of literature itself, we shall 
find in the Russian writers the same insights about modem 
man. So far as Existentialism is concerned, we are here on 
even richer soil. 

Conditions in nineteenth-century Russia thrust the writer 
into a position where he was forced to confront the ultimate 
problems of human life. Hence, no matter how realistic may 
be its literary tone, Russian fiction is thoroughly metaphysi¬ 
cal and philosophical at bottom. The contrast between East 
and West was as sharp then as now, though it yielded much 
richer fruits for nineteenth-century writers. Russia was ab¬ 
sorbing Western culture at breakneck speed, and the strain 
of this absorption produced throughout her whole society a 
situation of extraordinary tension and ambivalence. The 
very backwardness of the country, which gave rise to a 



smoldering but profound sense of inferiority in cultured 
Russians, could at the same time be the cause of an over¬ 
weening feeling of superiority toward western Europe and 
all its refinements. The West stood for the Enlightenment, 
true, but Russia—with her vast spaces, mud, illiterate peas¬ 
antry, and archaic Church—at least was in contact still with 
old Mother Earth; and the Russian Slavophile, convinced 
of his nation's messianic destiny, could spurn, as he does 
today, the decadence of the West. The word “intelligentsia” 
is of Russian origin; its coinage bears witness to the fact 
that intellectuals, whatever their original social or economic 
class, felt themselves a distinct cultural group in Russia be¬ 
cause by their very nature they were alienated from the 
rest of the society. Outside of the small glow of light cast 
by the cultured circles in Moscow and Petersburg, Russia 
was an immense wasteland populated by primitive peas¬ 
antry and ineffectual gentry. The intelligentsia were so con¬ 
scious of themselves as a class because the head, in their 
country, was so far removed from the body social. The ad¬ 
vent of Communism in 1917 belongs in the general scheme 
of Russian development, which began in the eighteenth 
century with the violent imposition of Western ways by 
Peter the Great. Social and political reforms exerted from 
above, the forcing of new ways down upon the old, cannot 
fail to produce acute dislocation and tension. The Russian 
writers of the nineteenth century had an opportunity (as 
they no longer have) to convert this human upheaval, if 
not into a form of social critique, at least into a spiritual 

Because they were placed outside of Western culture- 
driven on the one hand to devour it greedily, as the indis¬ 
pensably tool of their own literary profession, on the other 
hand impelled to stand apart from it in order to assert their 
own identity—the Russian writers were in a unique and 
privileged position, from which they could see this culture 
in a way that Western eyes could not. The sharp contradic¬ 
tion between their own existence as intellectuals and that 
of the rest of the vast, shapeless, backward social body of 
Russia enabled them to see this as a contradiction central to 



the whole culture of the Enlightenment. Intellectuals as a 
class suffer to the degree that they are cut off from the 
rest of mankind. But intellectuals are the embodiment of 
reason, and reason itself if cut off from the concrete life of 
ordinary mankind is bound to decay. When the head is too 
far away from the body, the head withers—or goes crazy. 
The whole of the European Enlightenment, in the eyes of 
these writers, faced this threat. It would be a mistake to 
consider this feeling of Tolstoy and Dostoevski as a mere 
manifestation of Russian nationalism, or as the Russian 
sense of inferiority converting itself into one of superiority; 
rather, the Russian condition placed these men in a position 
to see a threat that was really there. 

A society that is going through a process of dislocation 
and upheaval, or of revolution, is bound to cause suffering 
to individuals, but this suffering itself can bring one closer 
to one’s own existence. Habit and routine are great veils 
over our existence. As long as they are securely in place, 
we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems 
sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit. 
When the social fabric is rent, however, man is suddenly 
thrust outside, away from the habits and norms he once 
accepted automatically. There, on the outside, his question¬ 
ing begins. Thrust out into the cold air of the Western En¬ 
lightenment, with its ideals of reason, progress, and lib¬ 
eralism, the Russian found his old religion a burning 
question. God, freedom, and immortality became topics not 
for the professional philosopher but for Everyman. We are 
told how Russian youths used to sit up all night arguing 
these matters. Such nai'vet6 and passion were on their way 
out in the West, where the same arguments had taken place 
a century earlier. Precisely because Russia was a backward 
country in this respect—because it had no developed tradi¬ 
tion of professional or professorial philosophy—there was no 
insulating screen between the questions and the personal 
passion such questions ought to arouse. The absence of a 
philosophical tradition, however, does not mean necessarily 
the absence of a philosophical revelation: the Russians did 
not have philosophers, but they did have Dostoevski and 



Tolstoy; and the substitute was perhaps not a total loss. 
When in the next century a professional philosopher, Hei¬ 
degger, began to re-examine the meaning of death, he took 
as his starting point a story by Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan 
Ilyich ,* and entire volumes have been written on the sub¬ 
ject of Dostoevski’s existential insights by thinkers like 
Berdyaev and Shestov. 

The first novel Dostoevski wrote after his return from im¬ 
prisonment in Siberia was Memoirs from the House of the 
Dead. Since the book came after the decisive events of his 
life—his near execution by a firing squad and his penal 
servitude in Siberia—it can be taken as the beginning of the 
real Dostoevski. The narrative that comprises the second 
part of the book, which is the novel proper, is fairly negligi¬ 
ble; but the first part, the description of prison life in 
Siberia, is of crucial importance in understanding Dostoev- 
skis deepest insights into human nature. An experience like 
his in this Siberian prison lay outside the whole humanistic 
tradition of European culture and could only be expected 
to yield knowledge of man that that tradition had not yet 
come upon. No classicist or rationalist, armed with the 
Aristotelian definition of man as the rational animal, could 
have been exposed to such a welter of humanity and still 
have retained his ancient convictions. What Dostoevski 
saw in the criminals he lived with is what he came finally 
to see at the center of mans nature; contradiction, ambiva¬ 
lence, irrationality. There was a childishness and innocence 
about these criminals, along with a brutality and cruelty, 
altogether not unlike the murderous innocence of a child. 
The men he knew could not be categorized as a criminal 
type and thus isolated from the rest of the species, man; 
these criminals were not “types,” but thoroughly individual 
beings; violent, energetic, intensely living shoots from the 
parent stalk. In them Dostoevski was face to face with the 
demoniacal in human nature; perhaps man is not the ra¬ 
tional but the demoniacal animal. A rationalist who loses 
sight of the demoniacal cannot understand human beings; 
he cannot even read our current tabloids. 



In The House of the Dead the philosophic theme re¬ 
mains unstated; it is implicit simply in the human material 
with which the novelist is dealing. In Crime and Punish¬ 
ment, however, Dostoevski embarked upon the kind of the¬ 
matic novel that is so distinctly his. The hero, Raskolnikov, 
is the alienated intellectual—alienated at once from the col¬ 
lective body of mankind and from his own being. Hungry 
and solitary, he spins out of the bowels of his own reason a 
Nietzschean theory (before Nietzsche) of the Superman 
who through his own superior daring and strength rises 
above all ordinary moral codes. Then to put his theory to 
the test he kills an old pawnbroker. But the criminal is un¬ 
equal to his crime: Raskolnikov’s theory has not reckoned 
with his own self, and the guilt over his crime brings on 
a breakdown. Precisely the feelings that had been repressed 
in this intellectual—the ordinary human horror at the tak¬ 
ing of life—erupt and take their revenge. What drove 
Raskolnikov to the crime had nothing to do with the jus¬ 
tifications he fabricated to himself: He reasoned, “I am 
poor, this old pawnbroker is a louse; by killing and robbing 
her, I can relieve my mother of the awful strain of paying 
for my studies”; but in fact, as he admits finally to the girl 
Sonia, he killed in order to prove to himself that he was 
not a louse like the ordinary run of mankind. The will to 
power—the demoniacal will to power—was thus discovered 
by Dostoevski before Nietzsche made it his theme. But, un¬ 
like Nietzsche, Dostoevski did not lose sight of the thor¬ 
oughly dialectical, or ambivalent, nature of this drive: The 
will to power is weakness as well as strength, and the more 
it is cut off and isolated from the rest of the human per¬ 
sonality, the more desperate, in its weakness, it can become. 
Thus Raskolnikov kills out of insecurity and weakness, not 
out of an excess of strength: he kills because he is des¬ 
perately afraid that he is nobody. And indeed he is, for his 
mind has so lost touch with the rest of him that he is not, 
properly speaking, a self. 

These destructive and even criminal possibilities of rea¬ 
son were the philosophic themes on which Dostoevski 
played his most persistent variations. In The Brothers 



Karamazov the appealing Ivan Karamazov is led, through a 
stubborn pride of intellect, into a revolt against God; his 
final breakdown, due to a medically vague “brain fever,” 
is dramatically appropriate—nemesis striking down its vic¬ 
tim through the offending organ. In The Possessed a group 
of political intellectuals are shown as being possessed by 
devils, ready to scheme, lie, even kill for the abstract ideals 
of Progress, reason, socialism. The political events of the last 
two decades have made The Possessed seem far less fan¬ 
tastic than some of our own intellectuals thought it during 
the Marxist period of the thirties. Nevertheless, some lib¬ 
eral minds still feel Dostoevski goes too far; that despite 
his amazing accuracy as a prophet of the political course of 
Russia as it was to be acted out some fifty or sixty years 
later, too much of his message is tied to an archaic and 
messianic Christianity. 

To be sure, Dostoevski as a thinker is not always a safe 
guide: the thought in his case too evidently partakes of the 
being of the thinker, and therefore often has a frenzied and 
hysterical quality. But Dostoevski as a psychologist—or 
rather, as die artist who reveals a certain psychological 
stratum in man—sets before us data on the human condi¬ 
tion that it would be folly for us to ignore. “He might have 
been a liberator of mankind,” Freud remarked of him, 
dryly, “instead he chose to be its jailer.” The implication is 
that Dostoevski would be more acceptable to a certain type 
of modem mind had he been a Freudian; but in that case 
he would also have been much less of a psychologist. The 
work of Dostoevski in which his attack upon the Enlighten¬ 
ment seems to carry most conviction for present-day readers 
is the novelette Notes from Underground. The impact made 
by its dark fulminations against human nature is due, cu¬ 
riously enough, to the fact that our ears have been some¬ 
what attuned to such things by modem psychoanalysis; 
and to the fact that in this work Dostoevski’s psychological 
explorations are less visibly connected with his Christian 
faith. We seem to have reached a point where we are will¬ 
ing to believe the worst about human nature so long as that 
worst is not attached to any hope of religious redemption. 



Notes from Underground appeared in 1864. The first 
part of this work is one of the most amazing monologues in 
all literature: The Underground Man, a petty clerk in the 
Russian bureaucracy, voices his spite, indignation, resent¬ 
ment, and his rebellious longing for freedom. Time and 
again in his tirade he refers to “the great crystal palace* 
as the symbol of the Enlightenment, with its dream of a 
thoroughly rational ordering of human life. This Crystal 
Palace had been given material form, as the b uildin g that 
housed the International Exposition in London in 1851. It 
was fitting that this Exposition, in which the bourgeois cen¬ 
tury congratulated itself on its material progress, should 
have been held in England, the country that had led in the 
industrial revolution and in the development of liberal and 
parliamentary government. Dostoevski’s Underground Man 
was the Russian answer to all those pious dreams enshrined 
in the Crystal Palace. The Underground Man, who is every- 
man or at least one underlying stratum in everyman, rejects 
everything for which that Palace and the liberal nineteenth 
century stood. In a rational utopia, he cries, man might die 
of boredom, or out of the violent need to escape this bore¬ 
dom start sticking pins in his neighbor—for no reason at all, 
just to assert his freedom. If science could comprehend all 
phenomena so that eventually in a thoroughly rational so¬ 
ciety human beings became as predictable as cogs in a ma¬ 
chine, then man, driven by this need to know and assert 
his freedom, would rise up and smash the machine. What 
the reformers of the Enlightenment, dreaming of a perfect 
organization of society, had overlooked, Dostoevski saw all 
too plainly with the novelist’s eye: Namely, that as modem 
society becomes more organized and hence more bureauc¬ 
ratized it piles up at its joints petty figures like that of the 
Underground Man, who beneath their nondescript surface 
are monsters of frustration and resentment. Like Nietzsche 
after him, Dostoevski was the great explorer of resentment 
as a powerful and sometimes unaccountable motive in man. 

Dostoevski is too complex and volcanic a figure to be 
swallowed at one gulp. There was something of the c r i m i na l 
in him as well as the saint The critic Strakhov in his bio- 


graphical notice may have weighed certain evidence too 
heavily against the novelist, but there seems nevertheless to 
have been a repulsive and unsavory side to Dostoevski’s 
character. Perhaps it was just these human contradictions, 
in all their virulence, however, that made Dostoevski so in¬ 
comparable a witness to the existential truth about man. In 
any case, his grasp of nihilism as the basic fact in modem 
life was itself never nihilistic. We know this from one pas¬ 
sage in The Idiot, in which Dostoevski reveals what had 
been and was always to be the pivot about which his life 
turned. A story is told by Prince Myshkin—the fool of Christ, 
another of Dostoevski’s own masks—as coming from another 
man, unidentified; but we of course know it to have been 
Dostoevski’s own experience. Here is the story in Myshkin’s 

This man had once been led out with the others to the 
scaffold and a sentence of death was read over him. . . . 
Twenty minutes later a reprieve was read to them, and 
they were condemned to another punishment instead. 
Yet the interval between those two sentences, twenty 
minutes or at least a quarter of an hour, he passed in the 
fullest conviction that he would die in a few minutes. 
. . . The priest went to each in turn with a cross. He 
had only five minutes more to live. He told me that those 
five minutes seemed to him an infinit e time, a vast 
wealth. . . . But he said that nothing was so dreadful at 
that time as the continual thought, “What if I were not 
to die! What if I could go back to life—what eternity! 
And it would all be mine! I would turn every minu te 
into an age; I would lose nothing, I would count every 
minute as it passed, I would not waste one!” He said 
that this idea turned to such a fury at last that he longed 
to be shot quickly. 

In this story, which describes Dostoevski’s own reprieve 
after he had been condemned to be executed by a firing 
squad, is the ultimate affirmation: in the face of death life 
has an absolute value. The meaning of death is precisely 
its revelation of this value. Such is the existential view of it, 



elaborated later by Tolstoy in his story The Death of Ivan 
Ilyich and by Heidegger in the context of a whole system 
of philosophy. 

To go from Dostoevski to Tolstoy is a little like emerging 
from the lurid air of some subterranean forge into the clear 
daylight. It has been said that every man is bom either a 
Platonist or an Aristotelian; it might be said with equal jus¬ 
tice that he is bom either a Tolstoyan or Dostoevskian. If 
Dostoevski is the novelist of the abnormal and the morbid, 
of the convulsions of the human spirit at its heights and in 
its depths, Tolstoy is by contrast the supreme portrayer of 
the normal and the organic. Tolstoy himself felt very 
keenly this temperamental antipathy to the other man, and 
for many years he dismissed Dostoevski as a “morbid medi¬ 
ocrity.” That view changed, however, and toward the end 
of his life The Brothers Karamazov became Tolstoy’s bed¬ 
side book, the one he read and reread endlessly. This rec¬ 
onciliation between the two writers is appropriate, for de¬ 
spite the tremendous differences in the literary and human 
atmospheres they create, both bring the same revelation to 
the philosophic mind. 

As a simple and convenient key to Tolstoy’s existential¬ 
ism, we» may begin with one brief passage from his Anm 
Karenina . Karenin, the husband, has suddenly and unex¬ 
pectedly become jealous of his wife Anna. This jealousy 
strikes him as offensive to his wife and to his own moral 
breeding, for he has been taught that “one” ought to trust 
one’s wife. Karenin is a thoroughly rational type, a dry and 
officious intellectual, whose whole life has been constructed 
on such rational precepts as to what “one” (the impersonal 
and collective one) must be and do. But there, all the same, 
is the incalculable and living fact of his jealousy staring him 
in the face: 

He felt that he was standing face to face with something 
illogical and irrational, and did not know what was to be 
done. Alexey Alexandrovitch was standing face to face 
with life, with the possibility of his wife’s loving some 



one other than himself, and this seemed to him Very ir¬ 
rational and incomprehensible because it was life itself. 
All his life Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived and worked 
in official spheres, having to do with the reflection of life. 
And every time he had stumbled against life itself he had 
shrunk away from it. Now he experienced a feeling akin 
to that of a man who, while calmly crossing a bridge 
over a precipice, should suddenly discover that the 
bridge is broken, and that there is a chasm below. That 
chasm was life itself, the bridge that artificial life in 
which Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived. For the first time 
the question presented itself to him of the possibility of 
his wife's loving some one else, and he was horrified at it. 

The great goal for Tolstoy, both as novelist and man, was 
just this “standing face to face with life.” Truth itself—the 
truth for man—is just this standing face to face with life. 
Such truth cannot come from the intellect, for the intellect 
may in fact veil it, placing us like Karenin in that imper¬ 
sonal zone where we know only “the reflection of life” 
through concepts, precepts, all the abstract formulae of 
social routine; rather, truth is of the whole man. Tolstoy 
tells us repeatedly, in his later tracts, that the truth he is 
after is not what he knows merely by the intellect but what 
he knows with his whole being. More impressively, how¬ 
ever, he has actually embodied this view of truth in the 
structure of his greatest novels. 

These novels unfold so simply and naturally that they 
do not seem to us to be plotted in the usual sense of literary 
contrivance and manipulation, but to be parts of the great 
organic process of life itself. Nevertheless, there is always 
a Tolstoyan subplot moving parallel to this effortless and 
organic sweep of life: people are bom, love, marry, suffer, 
move toward death, but in the midst of this unfolding pano¬ 
rama there is one character, the emissary of Tolstoy and 
the bearer of the spirit, whose story amid all these other 
natural involvements is that of the search for truth—for his 
own truth and the truth of life itself. Thus we have Levin 
in Anna Karenina and Pierre in War and Peace . The things 



that happen to them in the course of the novels—encounters, 
love, marriage, suffering—are only so many stages on the 
way the spirit takes in search of its truth. In the end Tolstoy 
shows them each as finding this truth. And what is it? It 
is not, as we have seen, an intellectual truth. Levin and 
Pierre are both at odds with the intellectuals of the city, 
who far from having found the answer they seek are indeed, 
in the artificiality of their life and its estrangement from 
nature, more remote from the truth than are the simple 
peasantry. (Here Tolstoy, despite his realism, speaks in the 
deepest tradition of Romanticism, as a good Wordsworth¬ 
ian, but with a vigor and boldness beyond anything in 
Wordsworth.) The truth Pierre and Levin come to possess 
is not intellectual, moreover, because there are no proposi¬ 
tions—and no system of propositions—they can assert that 
would adequately express what it is they have learned out 
of all their tribulations. Theirs is not an intellectual, but an 
existential truth. It consists in nothing more nor less than 
that they now stand more directly “face to face with life 
itself.” They are open to what is; and if we were to cast 
about for a philosophic expression for this, the nearest we 
could come would be Heidegger s description of truth as 
the openness toward Being. 

To grasp the Tolstoyan meaning of truth is to grasp the 
unity of all his writings—novels, tracts, autobiography—a 
unity so strong as to make his work virtually unique. Per¬ 
haps this was so because Tolstoy himself was so much more 
than a writer. But anyone who would stand face to face 
with life itself must also stand face to face with death, for 
death is an inescapable part of life. It is here that Tolstoy’s 
passionate quest for truth met the acid test of courage; and 
he was equal to it. His preoccupation with death is not 
morbid brooding, mere fecklessness, or cowardice, but the 
measure of his intense passion for life. It is this that makes 
his story. The Death of Ivan Ilyich , perhaps the most pow¬ 
erful description in any literature of what it means to face 
death. Ivan Ilyich is a thoroughly ordinary and average 
bourgeois—in fact, Everyman; he has acquired success in 
the average way, found love and marriage and a family in 



the average way—as, likewise, the lack of love in the average 
way: altogether, a likable and pleasant fellow. He falls from 
a ladder, but the accident seems slight and he thinks noth¬ 
ing of the pain in his side. The pain stays, however, and 
grows; he begins to go from doctor to doctor, but no diag¬ 
nosis seems to serve. Then the horrifying thought dawns 
upon him that he may be going to die. The reality of death 
lies not in the physical structure, the organs that medical 
science examines; it is a reality unthin Ivan Ilyich’s own 

To Ivan Ilyich only one question was important: was his 
case serious or not? But the doctor ignored that inappro¬ 
priate question. From his point of view it was not under 
consideration, the real question was to decide between 
a floating kidney, chronic catarrh, or appendicitis. It was 
not a question of Ivan Ilyich’s life or death, but one be¬ 
tween a floating kidney and appendicitis. 

Nor does death’s reality consist in its being a mere external 
social fact, an event that happens to everybody: 

The syllogism he had learned from Kiezewetter’s Logic: 
“Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mor¬ 
tal,” always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, 
but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius—man 
in the abstract—was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he 
was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, 
quite separate from all others. 

The reality of death is precisely that it sunders Ivan Ilyich 
from all other human beings, returns him to the absolute 
solitude of his own individual self, and destroys the fabric 
of society and family in which he had lost himself. But aw¬ 
ful and inexorable as the presence of death is, it gives to 
the dying man the one revelation of truth in his life, even 
though the content of this revelation is chiefly the point¬ 
lessness of the way he has lived. 

Tolstoy could not have written this story had not he him¬ 
self stood face to face at one time with death. Maxim Gorky 
knew Tolstoy well for a time, and in his Reminiscences of 



Tolstoy has given us a remarkable picture of the old man, 
indomitably earth-bound, sunning himself like a lizard, and 
capable old as he was of such outbursts of sexual profanity 
as to make Gorky, himself a pretty robust type, blush in 
embarrassment. But this same old man could say to Gorky 
one day: “If a man has learned to think, no matter what he 
may think about, he is always thinking of his own death. 
All philosophers were like that . And what truth can there 
be, if there is deathF’ All philosophers, unfortunately, have 
not been like that; and Tolstoy himself would have snorted 
with anger and derision at the remark of Spinoza, so typical 
in this of the philosophic tradition: “The free man never 
thinks of death, but only of life”—as if one could think of 
life without thinking of death. In his My Confession, the 
story of his own spiritual crisis in middle life and one of the 
greatest of existential documents, Tolstoy tells how he him¬ 
self met the dread presence which finally overwhelms poor 
Ivan Ilyich. A happy man; with family, wealth, and fame; 
in the full possession of all his physical and mental powers: 
nevertheless he suddenly became aware of the possibility 
of death, yawning like a chasm beneath his feet. The reve¬ 
lation was all the more dreadful in view of his boundless 
energy and mastery of life; that such a chasm should ap¬ 
pear at all seemed to him absurd and irrational. He recounts 
how he attempted to take stock of himself, to think, to 
search through science and philosophy for some answer to 
this absurd and grinning presence. But reason holds no an¬ 
swer to this problem of death: the solution is always the 
same, as in an equation in which zero equals zero. The wis¬ 
dom of the sages—Socrates, Buddha, Ecclesiastes, Schopen¬ 
hauer—tells us only that in the face of death life is meaning¬ 
less and an evil; meanwhile, millions of ordinary people 
who know nothing of the thought of these sages go on liv¬ 
ing, begetting children, perpetuating the race. The mean¬ 
ing of life, if there is one, says Tolstoy, must be found in 
these ordinary souls and not in the great intellects of the 
race. Whatever ultimate meaning there is is vital and not 
rational. The peasantry are wiser in their ignorance than 
the savants of St. Petersburg in their learning. 



My Confession is not the argument of a professional phi¬ 
losopher, but it is a powerful act of thinking (to which no 
summary can do justice) nonetheless, and a great work of 
art to boot. In it, as in his greatest novels, we encounter 
that peculiarly Tolstoyan power to cut through all artifices 
and complications in order to come directly to the heart of 
his matter. Is not this a power not only of art but of 
thought? And perhaps as valid as a means to truth as the 
ingenious dialectic of any philosopher? 

All the foregoing refugees from Laputa, though they 
differ widely in temperament and literary art, come to¬ 
gether in a remarkable way in their criticism of modem life 
and the peculiar threat it raises to the being of man. They 
make an impressive group of witnesses, and their testimony 
can be dismissed out of court as the aberration of poets 
only by those Platonic (or Laputan) intellectuals who have 
already excluded poetry from their ideal Republic. The 
historians of ideas have acquired a magical belief in labels 
not unlike the old magical belief in spells; they seem to 
think that they need only apply the proper rubrics— 
"Romanticism,” "Irrationalism,” "Symbolism,” “the Russian 
soul,” or what not—to conjure away the realities with which 
these writers dealt, much as the medieval bishop thought 
he could exterminate the vermin simply by excommunicat¬ 
ing them. The work of all these writers pointed to some¬ 
thing that was happening to Western man that could not 
be arrested; something of such power and momentum that 
it had eventually to erupt into philosophy itself. This erup¬ 
tion took place in the existential philosophers, to whom we 
now come. The malaise of poets over the last hundred and 
fifty years, far from being the itch of merely personal neu¬ 
rosis, discloses rather the h uman climate in which philoso¬ 
phers too, whether they knew it or not, drew their breath. 

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great minds, Kierkegaard was aware of this in himself, and 
so forewarned against the subtle and omnivorous depreda¬ 
tions of his intellect. His intellectual power, he knew, was 
also his cross. Without faith, which the intelligence can 
never supply, he would have died inside his mind, a sickly 
and paralyzed Hamlet. 

As the nineteenth century recedes, the foothills that close 
up had seemed to tower fall into proper perspective and 
the true heights rise more starkly. More and more, for us 
today, Kierkegaard begins to be visible above his century, 
a solitary peak but central to the whole chain. And this 
belated fame, in a century that has departed as far from 
him almost as it has from the Middle Ages, is a paradox, 
as was the man himself. Certain great German forerunners 
of Kierkegaard had also attempted a critique of the intel¬ 
ligence; and earlier opponents of rationalism, men like 
Hamann and the later Schelling, had spoken out forcefully 
for the instinctive, the intuitive, the mythical against a 
time that seemed no longer able even to understand such 
things. By comparison with the German Romanticists Kier¬ 
kegaard traced a much narrower orbit in his writings; but 
the narrower the orbit, the closer we are to the center, hence 
the less energy lost on matters peripheral. Justice Holmes 
once remarked that the hallmark of genius, in a great 
lawyer or jurist, was his ability to cut through technicalities 
and go for the jugular. Kierkegaard’s one theme and his 
one passion was Christianity, but Christianity embraced 
neither speculatively nor romantically; his concern, rather, 
was with what it means concretely for the individual to be 
a Christian. The central fact for the nineteenth century, as 
Kierkegaard (and after him Nietzsche, from a diametrically 
opposite point of view) saw it, was that this civilization 
that had once been Christian was so no longer. It had been 
a civilization that revolved around the figure of Christ, and 
was now, in Nietzsche’s image, like a planet detaching it¬ 
self from its sun; and of this the civilization was not yet 
aware. In contrast with this great historical datum, this 
fork in the road for the whole of mankind and not just for 
its savants, most of the questions debated by philosophers 



—the nature of sense-data, perception, judgment, canons of 
induction and deduction, and the rest—look like what they 
are, mandarin pastimes. The thinker whose thought is cen¬ 
tral, however, is always attuned to some urgent question of 
his time of which the time itself is not aware. In Holmes's 
brutal and telling phrase, Kierkegaard (like Nietzsche 
after him) goes for the jugular. That is one explanation of 
his power over us today. 


Kierkegaard, of course, never put to himself the question 
of his own relevance to his time in this speculative and de¬ 
tached way. He did not take up the problem of Christianity 
because history, civilization, and Western man were at 
issue. That would have been something for the professional 
speculators, the learned Privatdocenten and professors of 
philosophy, to deal with. The problem for Kierkegaard was 
throughout a personal one: he had chosen to be a Christian, 
and he had constantly to renew that choice, with all the 
energy and passion of his being. All that he thought and 
wrote shows this personal cast. He called his book Fear and 
Trembling "a dialectical lyric,” and the phrase would in 
fact be a good description of nearly all his writing. His 
thought was the lyric of Kierkegaard the man: frankly and 
avowedly an act of self-expression. For all its lyricism, how¬ 
ever, it has its own subtlety, exactness, and dialectical 
acumen. Indeed, the thought of the “subjective thinker,” 
as Kierkegaard called himself, always has its own rigor, dis¬ 
tinct from that of the objective theorist. Kierkegaard does 
not merely tell us that being precedes thought, or that all 
thought is an expression of some concrete being; he shows 
us this truth in the flesh, as it were, by showing us a 
thought that is without disguise an act of being, i.e., of his 
own personal and passionate existence. He never aimed at 
being a philosopher and all his philosophy was indeed in¬ 
cidental to his main purpose, to show what it means to be 
a Christian; just as this was in turn incidental to his own 
personal task in life—that of becoming one. 



The reader who wishes to understand Kierkegaard ought 
to begin with his purely devotional works, such as Train - 
ing in Christianity or Works of Love , which he signed with 
his own name and not with pseudonyms; in these the true 
center both of his life and of his work resides. The ultimate 
source of Kierkegaards power over us today lies neither in 
his own intelligence nor in his battle against the imperialism 
of intelligence—to use the formula with which we began— 
but in the religious and human passion of the man himself, 
from which the intelligence takes fire and acquires all its 
meaning. This still can arouse us today to the problem of 
our own subjectivity. We open a book, as Pascal says, ex¬ 
pecting to encounter an author, and we meet a man. Even 
to those for whom Christianity is a mournful echo of a dead 
past, Kierkegaard still can make, in Karl Jaspers’ phrase, an 
appeal to their own existence. Being a Christian, after all, 
is one way of being a man—for Kierkegaard personally it 
was the only way—and to have this way ill umin ed, to be 
summoned to its tasks, is also to be called on to be a man, 
however divergent our own choice of a way may be. 

Kierkegaard the man, however, is not an ingratiating 
figure in everyone’s eyes. During his own lifetime he met 
with an unfriendly press and he is not exactly without one 
even now. He was a bizarre and eccentric figure, to be sure, 
and his physical appearance was no help to him in his 
native city of Copenhagen, where the street urchins used 
to run after him yelling “Either/or! Either/orl” He had 
fine eyes, but there the attractive features ended; a spindly 
figure, a humped back, and a tousled head of hair made 
him look altogether rather like a scarecrow. He accepted 
his ill-favored body, however, with what seems to have 
been wry good humor; it was his first instruction in comic 
irony, so important a weapon later in his intellectual ar¬ 
senal, for here was irony close to home in the disproportion 
between this frail and ungainly body and the infinite claims 
of the spirit which it housed. He always was able there¬ 
after to see comedy and pathos together as one human side 
of religion. 

If his fellow townsmen held his odd physical appearance 

K l fr'.B K hlflAABn 


against him, subsequent critics have dealt almost as harshly 
with the personality behind this unprepossessing exterior. 
“Kierkegaard the cripplel” is a phrase invoked not merely 
against the man's body but against his spirit too. Recent 
psychoanalytic critics have clumsily wielded their scalpels 
upon him in an effort to cut the man down to size—in order, 
apparently, to cut down his thought. Much too much mys¬ 
tification has been made of one decisive event, of a hu¬ 
man and emotional nature, in a life that was otherwise one 
of dedicated uneventfulness: his becoming engaged to, and 
subsequently breaking off with, Regina Olsen. If Kierke¬ 
gaard had not been an existential thinker, his broken en¬ 
gagement would now be only a subject for gossip; but man 
and thinker being one, in his case, the incident does in fact 
shed a great light on his thought and is worth going into 
if only to clear up some of the mystification. 

Why Kierkegaard should have broken this engagement 
should not be such a mystery when he himself put forward 
pretty adequate reasons for doing so. To make it a mystery 
that can only be explained by some unspoken and unspeak¬ 
able blight within his character is simply to cast doubt on 
there being such a thing as a religious personality for which 
the ordinary life of marriage and family is impossible, 
simply because it has other tasks. The religious type may 
seem an abnormal one, to our secular and naturalistic 
minds; but there it is, it exists, and in sufficient plenty 
throughout history. Only a very parochial and dogmatic 
mind can fail to accord to this type at the least its own 
psychological right to be. Kierkegaard's case, to be sure, 
was complicated because he himself longed passionately for 
marriage, home, family—the blisses and the tedium of the 
commonplace; his writings are packed with eulogies of 
these. His most touching picture of the man of faith is of 
an ordinary bourgeois paterfamilias sunk deep in the life 
of domesticity. Naturally, then, he never ceased to regret 
the loss of Regina; for him it was a sacrifice as drastic as 
Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, his firstborn; and Kierkegaard 
had personal as well as religious motives in exploring, in 
Fear and Trembling , that old Biblical story. In a moment 



of melancholy in his Journals , he even goes so far as to say: 
“If I had faith, I would have stayed with Regina”—a re¬ 
mark of immediate and momentary grief that has given 
some suspicious critics grounds for crowing over the lack 
of genuineness of Kierkegaard's faith. But what his remark 
really means is that the loss of Regina was a painful loss, 
and therefore that the choice not to have her was a decisive 
choice, which in fact split the man in two and had to be 
met ultimately as a choice of himself. Here the philosophi¬ 
cal and personal meanings of this episode meet and be¬ 
come one. 

Had he given up the girl and sunk into an aimless and 
irreligious life, we would be justified in finding his renun¬ 
ciation only an act of impotent neurosis. At the moment 
of renunciation, indeed, there flashed before Kierkegaard's 
mind another pair of alternatives: a life of unbridled 
sensuality or an absolutely religious one. We who are able 
to look back on his life spread out before us as a whole 
are not likely to believe that this first alternative was really 
possible for Kierkegaard. He had the vocation from the 
start—to be sure, it was a mixed, tormented, and ambiguous 
vocation, but a triumphant one too. He chose what he had 
to become. This does not in the least mean that it was not 
a free choice; on the contrary, it had to be renewed freely 
day by day, throughout the rest of his life, if it were to be 
given meaning. Kierkegaard was, that is, what he had to 
be; but he had to be it by making the free choice every 
day to renew that choice. “I cannot do otherwise,” said 
Martin Luther at the moment of performing what was the 
highest act of freedom of his life. If a man who wants to 
get married but cannot converts his renunciation into a 
dedication and an eventual triumph, we cannot then judge 
the value and the meaning of his life—including as it now 
does that act of renunciation—by the categories of neurosis. 

Having lived through the breaking of his engagement, 
Kierkegaard could not ever become a Hegelian. The drastic 
Either/Or of choice had cut through his life as decisively 
as a sword, and no philosopher's balm could remove the 
pain of loss. The man who has chosen irrevocably, whose 



choice has once and for all sundered him from a certain 
possibility for himself and his life, is thereby thrown back 
on the reality of that self in all its mortality and finitude. 
He is no longer a spectator of himself as a mere possibility; 
he is that self in its reality. The anguish of loss may be 
redeemed, but can never be mediated. Reality for the man 
who has been called upon to make such a choice is just 
the reality of his own mortal, finite, bleeding self, and this 
reality can never be absorbed in a whole in which that 
finite suffering becomes unreal. The Absolute of Hegel em¬ 
braces all reality and swallows up every contradiction and 
every finite evil. It is, as it were, the philosophic counter¬ 
part of that great Crystal Palace from which every shadow 
or dark spot of our ordinary human reality has been cast 
out. When Lear cries out in that appalling line, “Never, 
never, never, never, neverl”, he is naming just that reality 
of the negative which we as finite mortals cannot escape. 
But in the philosophy of Hegel the negative is not ulti¬ 
mately real, for the Absolute Reality is pure and positive 
being. Kierkegaard, of course, being thoroughly human, 
hoped that his loss would be made good, that Regina might 
be restored to him; but he knew this could only be through 
a miracle of faith. The cosmic rationalism of Hegel would 
have told him his loss was not a real loss but only the ap¬ 
pearance of loss, but this would have been an abominable 
insult to his suffering. 

Kierkegaard already knew all this, but the experience of 
the broken engagement clinched it for him. The episode 
of the engagement thus becomes a human drama in which 
the ultimate meaning is religious and philosophical For 
the thinker, as for the artist, what counts in life is not the 
number of rare and exciting adventures he encounters, but 
the inner depth in that life, by which something great may 
be made out of even the paltriest and most banal of 

Kierkegaard has been criticized as being overmelan¬ 
choly, excessively introverted, even morbid—a Hamlet more 
brooding than the original Dane. Melancholy he certainly 
was, and the Journals abound in sighs, tears, and self- 



laceration. But what is a journal for if not to unburden one¬ 
self? One is expected, out of good breeding, to refrain from 
weeping and sighing in public, but is one also expected to 
keep on one’s social mask while writing in a diary? The 
remarkable thing about Kierkegaard was that the cloud of 
sighs and tears he shed never got in the way of his seeing 
what he was after: no man ever hewed more strictly to the 
line of his own truth. His melancholy, moreover, was 
lightened by humor and irony, and a wonderful sense of 
the beauties of homely life. Kierkegaard was indeed one of 
the most intensely introverted of men, and even of writers. 
But introversion and extraversion, as Jung suggests, are not 
at all of our choosing; and the rosiest extravert is just as 
effectively imprisoned in his own centrifugal self as the in¬ 
trovert is in his centripetal one. Kierkegaard was able to 
make a very great deal out of his tendency to morbid 
introspection. He was aware of his own seff-imprisonment 
and was able to see its conditions more clearly than any 
religious writer before him. 

Kierkegaard succeeded, in Nietzsche’s words, in be¬ 
coming the individual he was; analysis of him will not ad¬ 
vance our understanding if it attempts, in a kind of critical 
daydream, to transform him into some altogether different 
individual. Rather than try to explain Kierkegaard away, it 
might be better to allow him now to explain himself. 


His own explanation of his point of departure as a 
thinker is given in a characteristically vivid and Kierke- 
gaardian passage in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript . 
While he sat one Sunday afternoon in the Fredriksberg 
Garden in Copenhagen smoking a cigar as was his habit, 
and turning over a great many things in his mind, he sud¬ 
denly reflected that he had as yet made no career for him¬ 
self whereas everywhere around him he saw the men of his 
age becoming celebrated, establishing themselves as re¬ 
nowned benefactors of mankind. They were benefactors be- 



cause all their efforts were directed at making life easier 
for the rest of mankind, whether materially by constructing 
railroads, steamboats, or telegraph lines, or intellectually by 
publishing easy compendiums to universal knowledge, or— 
most audacious of all—spiritually by showing how thought 
itself could make spiritual existence systematically easier 
and easier. Kierkegaards cigar burned down, he lighted an¬ 
other, the train of reflection held him. It occurred to him 
then that since everyone was engaged everywhere in mak¬ 
ing things easy, perhaps someone might be needed to make 
things hard again; that life might become so easy that 
people would want the difficult back again; and that this 
might be a career and destiny for him. 

The irony is delicious and thoroughly Socratic, and ap¬ 
propriately so, since the task it marked out for Kierkegaard 
was parallel to that of Socrates. As the ancient Socrates 
played the gadfly for his fellow Athenians stinging them 
into awareness of their own ignorance, so Kierkegaard 
would find his task, he told himself, in raising difficulties for 
the easy conscience of an age that was smug in the con¬ 
viction of its own material progress and intellectual en¬ 
lightenment. He would be a modem and Christian gadfly 
as Socrates had been an ancient and pagan one. 

Now, it was no accident that the name of Socrates came 
to Kierkegaard’s mind in his meditation on his life’s task. 
The ancient Greek sage held a special place in his affec¬ 
tions, due not only to the power of the Socratic personality 
but also to basic philosophic principle. In his estimate of 
Socrates, as on most other points, Kierkegaard is the dia¬ 
metrical opposite of Nietzsche: the two agree only in the 
I importance they attach to the gadfly of Athens. Kierke¬ 
gaard was interested not at all in the Socrates who figures 
in some of Plato’s writings as the mouthpiece of Platonism; 
^ his attachment rather was to the man Socrates, the con¬ 
crete man of flesh and blood, who said that he had no 
system or doctrine to teach, that in fact he had no knowl¬ 
edge of his own, but could only play the midwife to other 
men in bringing to birth the knowledge they had within 
themselves. In comparison with a modem philosopher like 



Hegel, who claims to have knowledge of the whole of 
reality or at least can find a place for everything within 
his System, old Socrates would seem to cut a very poor 
figure indeed. However, if philosophy is, as the etymology 
of the word signifies, the love of wisdom, then Socrates was 
a genuine philosopher—a lover of wisdom—even though he 
did not claim to know about this love. We do not ordinarily 
say a man is a lover even if he knows all about love, un¬ 
less he does in fact love. And indeed the more he loves, the 
less confidence he is likely to have in any theory about 
love. For Socrates philosophy was a way of life, and he 
existed in that way. Since he did not profess to have any 
theory of philosophy, he did not accept pay as a professor. 
He could teach only by example, and what Kierkegaard 1 
learned from the example of Socrates became fundamental 
for his own thinking: namely, that existence and a theory 
about existence are not one and the same, any more than 
a printed menu is as effective a form of nourishment as an j 
actual meal. More than that: the possession of a theory 
about existence may intoxicate the possessor to such a j 
degree that he forgets the need of existence altogether. The 
lover may become more fascinated by his theory about love 
than by the person of the beloved, and so cease to love. 
There is, in short, a fundamental discrepancy between 
existence and theory; and this discrepancy Kierkegaard 
proceeded to explore in a way more radical than had hith¬ 
erto been done in Western thought. 

In the course of this exploration he had to engage in a 
sweeping polemic against Hegelian philosophy. We miss 
altogether the point of this polemic, however, if we think 
of it as merely a local skirmish against an odd and now . 
outdated system of thought. Kierkegaard fought against the 
Hegelian climate of his time, but the ultimate issues were 
neither local nor temporary because in these issues Hegel 
was simply the spokesman for the whole tradition of West- f 
em philosophy. Hegel was not an odd lunatic, as some 
people nowadays think, but a very great philosopher; 
Kierkegaard was a greater man, however, and for that rea- 
son, if for no other, was able to catch Hegel out. What j 



strikes us today as extreme, audacious, or even cra2y in 
what Hegel says often seems so only because he was speak¬ 
ing aloud what had been the hidden presuppositions of 
Western philosophy since its very beginning with the 
Greeks. When Hegel says, “The Real is rational, and the 
rational is real,” we might at first think that only a German 
idealist with his head in the clouds, forgetful of our earthly 
existence, could so far forget all the discords, gaps, and 
imperfections in our ordinary experience. But the belief in 
a completely rational cosmos lies behind the Western phil¬ 
osophic tradition; at the very dawn of this tradition Par¬ 
menides stated it in his famous verse, “It is the same thing 
that can be thought and that can be.” What cannot be 
thought, Parmenides held, cannot be real. If existence can¬ 
not be thought, but only lived, then reason has no other 
recourse than to leave existence out of its picture of reality. 
As the French scientist and philosopher Emile Meyerson 
says, reason has only one means of accounting for what 
does not come from itself, and that is to reduce it to noth¬ 
ingness. Which is exactly what Parmenides did, and what 
philosophers after him continued to do. The process is still 
going on today, in somewhat more subtle fashion, under the 
names of science and Positivism, and without invoking the 
blessing of Hegel at all. 

Hegel’s peculiar offense lay not in following the tradition 
by leaving existence out of his system, but rather in the 
way in which he tried to bring it in, having begun by ex¬ 
cluding it. At law, I suppose, this would come under the 
heading of a compound felony. All his philosophical prede¬ 
cessors, or nearly all of them, had committed the theft, but 
poor Hegel was caught in the act of trying to restore the 
misappropriated article. The means he chose were most 
unfortunate: he tried to bring back existence through logic. 
Reason, become omnipotent, would generate existence out 
of itself! Even here, Hegel was not really flying in the 
face of tradition, as it might seem; he was only giving a 
more audacious expression to the overinflation of reason 
and its powers that had been the peculiar professional de¬ 
formation of almost all earlier philosophers. This conjuring 



up of existence, like a rabbit out of a hat, Hegel accom¬ 
plished by means of his famous dialectic, the instrument 
Marx later turned with such devastating results upon social 
and economic history. We begin, says Hegel, with the con¬ 
cept of Being, a pure empty concept without existence; 
this begets its opposite, Nothing, and out of the pair comes 
the mediating and reconciling concept that is the synthesis 
of both. This process goes on until at the proper stage of 
the dialectic we reach the level of Reality, which is to say. 
Existence. The details of the derivation we need not go into 
here; what concerns us is the general structure of Hegel's 
argument, through which thought begets existence. It does 
not require much imagination to see the human implica- !j 
tions of this sample of Hegelian dialectic. 

There was nothing recondite about the kind of existence 
for which Kierkegaard, in refuting Hegel, fought such a 
brilliant and passionate battle. It was indeed our ordinary . 
human existence—concrete, personal, and finite—which he 
saw reason on the point of ingesting into itself. Reason s 
offense was a religious one, to Kierkegaard, because Chris¬ 
tianity for him was through and through a personalistic 
religion, depending on an historical incarnation and an 
historical revelation, and could not be understood purely 
under the aspect of eternity. Hegel, on the other hand, still 
called himself a Christian but believed that philosophy en¬ 
compassed religion and made the religious truth a mere 
symbolic approximation to itself. If Hegel had recognized, 
and admitted, that he had actually passed out of Christi¬ 
anity, the matter would stand differently, and one could let 
the whole Hegelian System pass unchallenged as a mag¬ 
nificent jeu d’esprit, an exuberant display of dialectical 
virtuosity. But Hegelianism threatens Christians more than 
does any professedly anti-Christian philosophy, because the 
System can only lead to confusion and misunderstanding 
as to what Christianity really is, and therefore to self- 
deception among those who continue to believe they are 
Christians when in fact they are not. Better to be a non- 
Christian and know it than to be a non-Christian and not \ 


know it—so any honest disciple of Socrates would be com¬ 
pelled to point out. 

If Kierkegaard had merely argued, against Hegel, that 
existence cannot be derived from reason, he would have 
gone no farther than some other schools of modem philoso¬ 
phy whose thought does not move beyond the sphere of 
logic. But Kierkegaard did in fact go much farther than 
this; and to see where he stood on the relation of reason to 
existence, we have to see him in a broader philosophical 
context, one that lies outside his particular relation to 

Kant, before Hegel, had made a statement on the subject 
of existence and reason that has become decisive for mod¬ 
em philosophy. Kant declared, in effect, that existence can 
never be conceived by reason—though the conclusions he 
drew from this fact were very different from Kierkegaard’s. 
“Being,” says Kant, “is evidently not a real predicate, or 
concept of something that can be added to the concept of 
a thing.” That is, if I think of a thing, and then think of 
that thing as existing, my second concept does not add any 
determinate characteristic to the first. Kant gives the ex¬ 
ample of the concept of a hundred dollars: if I think of a 
hundred real dollars and a hundred possible dollars, my 
concept is still of one hundred dollars, not a cent more nor 
less. To be sure, in the order of existence and not of con¬ 
cepts, there is a world of difference between the real and 
the merely possible: a hundred real dollars will make me 
a hundred dollars richer, while a hundred possible dollars 
leave my financial position exactly where it was. But that 
is in life and not in thought. So far as thinking is concerned, 
there is no definite note or characteristic by which, in a 
concept, I can represent existence as such. 

Now when Kant made this point, he was speaking, or 
intended to speak, from the more positivistic and scientific 
side of his philosophy. From the point of view of theoreti¬ 
cal knowledge existence is negligible, because knowledge 
wants to know about a thing, and the fact that it exists 
does not tell me anything about it. Ultimately, what I want 
to know about the thing is what characterizes it in the way 



of definite observable qualities; and existence, far from 
being an observable quality, is in fact too general, remote, 
and tenuous a property to be represented at all to the mind. 
Hence, all modem Positivism takes its cue from Kant's doc¬ 
trine and discards all thinking about existence (metaphys¬ 
ics, as this school calls it) as pointless because existence 
cannot be represented in a concept, and hence thinking 
about it will never lead to any definite results in observa¬ 
tion. The crossroad in modem philosophy is precisely here, 
and Kierkegaard takes a road leading in the opposite direc¬ 
tion from that taken by Positivism. If existence cannot be 
represented in a concept, he says, it is not because it is too 
general, remote, and tenuous a thing to be conceived of 
but rather because it is too dense, concrete, and rich. I am; 
and this fact that I exist is so compelling and enveloping 
a reality that it cannot be reproduced thinly in any of my 
mental concepts, though it is clearly the life-and-death fact 
without which all my concepts would be void. 

Kant can justly be called the father of modem philoso- I 
phy, for out of him stem nearly all the still current and 
contending schools of philosophy: Positivism, Pragmatism, f 
and Existentialism. The difference between Positivism and 
Existentialism, to confine ourselves to these two, can be seen 
simply as the different response to Kant's point that exist¬ 
ence cannot be a concept. 

And this difference makes all the difference. Philosophers r 
before Kierkegaard had speculated about the proposition 
“I exist," but it was he who observed the crucial fact they 
had forgotten: namely, that my own existence is not at all 
a matter of speculation to me, but a reality in which I am 
personally and passionately involved. I do not find this 
existence reflected in the mirror of the mind, I encounter it 
in life; it is my life, a current flowing invisibly around all 
my mental mirrors. But if existence is not mirrored as a 
concept in the mind, where then do we really come to 
grips with it? For Kierkegaard this decisive encounter with 
the Self lies in the Either/Or of choice. When he gave up jfc 
Regina, thus forever giving up the solaces of ordinary life 
for which he longed, Kierkegaard was encountering his j 



own existence as a reality more potent and drastic than any 
concept. And so any man who chooses or is forced to choose 
decisively—for a lifetime, and therefore for eternity since 
only one life is given us—experiences his own existence as 
something beyond the mirror of thought. He encounters the 
Self that he is, not in the detachment of thought, but in 
the involvement and pathos of choice. 


To make his position clear, Kierkegaard elaborated three 
levels of existence—the aesthetic, ethical, and religious— 
and his clarification of these levels represents one of his 
most significant contributions to philosophy. 

The child is the perfect and complete aesthete, in terms 
of this distinction, for the child lives solely in the pleasure 
or pain of the moment. Some people do grow up retaining 
something of this childlike immediacy of response, this 
capacity for existing in the moment. They are sometimes 
beautiful to watch, these immediate ones, says Kierkegaard, 
* as they glow in the moment responding to some simple 
and beautiful object with all the grace of their nature and 
their blood. They are also thrown as quickly and immedi¬ 
ately into despair if the flower that delights them fades. 
The aesthete, in the stricter sense, is someone who chooses 
to live solely for such privileged and pleasurable moments. 
Kierkegaard explores the aesthetic attitude with great sub¬ 
tlety and sympathy; but, he says, in the end it must collapse 
into despair. Ancient Epicureanism shows this, for it is 
haunted by the images of despair that it has sought to 
banish from its thinking. The most beautiful Epicurean 
poems of the Greeks and the Romans are always haunted 
by sadness: there is a grinning skull behind the flowers. 
Lucretius, the greatest poet of Epicureanism, has the pas¬ 
sion of madness, and the tradition is that he did toward the 
end of his life go mad. Life yields so many weeds along 
A with its flowers that the man who has staked his whole life 
on its pleasurable moments has to become desperate in his 
search for them, as Don Juan becomes desperate in his 


search for new loves. The aesthete is driven into a panicky 
flight from the prospect of boredom, and this flight—which 
is in fact a flight from himself—becomes his form of despera¬ 
tion and therefore of despair. 

Kierkegaard’s treatment of the aesthetic is given a new 
and. radical twist when he extends the attitude to include 
also that of the intellectual “aesthete,” the contemplative 
who tries to stand outside life and behold it as a spectacle. 
The word “aesthetic” comes from the Greek verb meaning 
to sense or perceive; it has the same root as the word 
“theory” and the word “theater.” At a theater we view 
spectacles in which we ourselves are not involved. The 
spectacle may be either interesting or boring, and the “in¬ 
teresting” and the “boring” are the dominant categories un¬ 
der which the aesthete views all experience. The intellectual 
who looks at things with detachment, the philosopher who 
claims to be the spectator of all time and existence—both 
are fundamentally aesthetes in their attitude. Here Kierke¬ 
gaard attacks what had been held to be the highest value 
in the tradition of Western philosophy, the thinker s specu¬ 
lative detachment from life; in so doing he laid down what 
was to be a cardinal point in all the subsequent existential 
philosophies. Plato, Spinoza, and the others were aesthetes 
without knowing it. 

The aesthetic attitude can be only a partial, never a com¬ 
plete, attitude toward life. Kierkegaard does not discard it, 
but preserves it within the more integrated and total at¬ 
titude that must supplant it as we become more seriously 
involved with ourselves and our life. Thus the three “stages 
on life’s way,” as Kierkegaard calls them, are not to be 
taken as different floors of a building; if I rise from the 
aesthetic to the ethical it does not mean that I have left 
the lower floor entirely behind me. Rather, both attitudes 
are stages on the way from the periphery to the center of 
the self, and the periphery is still preserved even when we 
have learned to dwell a little closer to our center. The fact 
is that the aesthete, at the very moment of choosing the 
aesthetic way of life, contradicts himself and enters upon 
the ethical. He chooses himself and his life, resolutely and 



consciously in the face of the death that will come as cer¬ 
tain; and his choice, by its very consciousness and resolute¬ 
ness, is a piece of finite pathos in the face of the vast noth¬ 
ingness stretching before and after his life. The aesthete 
may not wish to dwell on this somber background to his 
choice, but that background is surely there even if we, to 
use Tolstoy's phrase, are not able to stand face to face with 
it. It is thus by an act of courage that we begin to exist 
ethically. We bind ourselves to ourselves for a lifetime. 

Does Kierkegaard add anything, by this, to the tradi¬ 
tional discussions of ethics by philosophers? I think he does; 
and it may take philosophy a long time to absorb the full 
import of what he has to say about the ethical as a level 
of our human existence. In the traditional kind of ethics 
philosophers are concerned with analyzing the concepts of 
good, bad, right, and wrong, and with deciding to which 
things or kinds of things these predicates may be attached. 
This is a purely formal kind of analysis; indeed, in modem 
times philosophers have shifted their inquiry to an analysis 
of the language of ethics. Such linguistic analysis does not 
in the least require that the man who makes it himself 
exist ethically. It is thus perfectly possible—and in fact 
often happens—that a philosopher who has worked out a 
complete theory of values in the abstract may yet remain 
in a childish or donnish existence that has never felt the 
bite of the ethical upon it. One's values may thus be all 
down on paper, but one's actual life goes on as if the ethical 
did not exist. A formal theory of ethics would be perfectly 
empty if it were not for the fundamental act of ethical ex¬ 
istence by which we let values come into our life. The 
fundamental choice, says Kierkegaard, is not the choice be¬ 
tween rival values of good and bad, but the choice by 
which we summon good and bad into existence for our¬ 
selves. Without such a choice, an abstract system of ethics 
is just so much paper currency with nothing to back it up. 

Kierkegaard speaks often of the ethico-religious, as if the 
two levels of existence were one; and for a mind so abrupt 
and powerful as his there is no doubt that it was a single 
leap from the aesthetic into the religious. For a really pas- 



sionate temperament that has renounced the life of pleas¬ 
ure, the consolations of the ethical are a warmed-over 
substitute at best. Why burden ourselves with conscience 
and responsibility when we are going to die, and that will 
be the end of it? Kierkegaard would have approved of the 
feeling behind Nietzsche’s saying, "God is dead, everything 
is permitted,” and he himself was fascinated by the bold 
amoral figure of the Seducer or Don Juan who, though 
secretly in despair, is at least living passionately. He never 
wearies of telling us that what is at stake in Christianity is 
our own eternal happiness and not the maintenance of a 
morality that may be socially desirable or is at least socially 

The real line of difference between the ethical and the 
religious Kierkegaard draws in his Fear and Trembling , 
and it has to do with the uniqueness of the individual, the 
singleness of the single one, and with the calling of the 
religious man, who has to break with the ordinary moral 
code that his fellow citizens approve. He uses the example 
of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac, but he has in mind 
throughout himself and his sacrifice of Regina. An ethical 
rule, he says, expresses itself as a universal: all men under 
such-and-such circumstances ought to do such and such. 
But the religious personality may be called upon to do 
something that goes against the universal norm. All men 
ought to cherish and preserve the lives of their sons; but 
Abraham is called by God to sacrifice Isaac his son. This 
calling is anguish, for Abraham is suspended between the 
fear of disobeying God and the doubt that this call may 
be from Him—he feels it may instead be the demoniacal 
voice of pride asking for a sacrifice that need not be made. 
So Kierkegaard could never be sure, when he broke his en¬ 
gagement to take up the cross of his religious life, that he 
was choosing rightly and not succumbing to some demonia¬ 
cal egotism. How does this break with the ethical diff er, if 
at all, from that advocated by Dostoevski’s Raskolnikov 
and by Nietzsche, who said the superior individual, the 
Superman, is justified in breaking any moral rule he wishes 
in order to advance his own power? The difference is that 



Kierkegaard does not deny the validity of the ethical: the 
individual who is called upon to break with the ethical 
must first have subordinated himself to the ethical univer¬ 
sal; and the break, when he is called upon to make it, is 
made in fear and trembling and not in the callous arrogance 
of power. The validity of this break with the ethical is 
guaranteed, if it ever is, by only one principle, which is 
central to Kierkegaards existential philosophy as well as to 
his Christian faith—the principle, namely, that the individ¬ 
ual is higher than the universal. (This means also that the 
individual is always of higher value than the collective.) 
The universal rule of ethics, precisely because it is univer¬ 
sal, cannot comprehend totally me, the individual, in my 
concreteness. Where then as an abstract rule it commands 
something that goes against my deepest self (but it has to 
be my deepest self, and herein the fear and trembling of 
the choice reside), then I feel compelled out of conscience 
—a religious conscience superior to the ethical—to transcend 
that rule. I am compelled to make an exception because 
I myself am an exception; that is, a concrete being whose 
existence can never be completely subsumed under any 
universal or even system of universals. 

Now, Abraham and Kierkegaard were both in excep¬ 
tional situations; most of us are not called upon to make 
such drastic sacrifices. But even the most ordinary people 
are required from time to time to make decisions crucial 
for their own lives, and in such crises they know something 
of the "suspension of the ethical” of which Kierkegaard 
writes. For the choice in such human situations is almost 
never between a good and an evil, where both are plainly 
marked as such and the choice therefore made in all the 
certitude of reason; rather it is between rival goods, where 
one is bound to do some evil either way, and where the 
ultimate outcome and even—or most of all—our own motives 
are unclear to us. The terror of confronting oneself in such 
a situation is so great that most people panic and try to 
take cover under any universal rule that will apply, if only 
it will save them from the task of choosing themselves. Un¬ 
fortunately, in a good many cases there is no such universal 



rule or recipe available, and the individual can do nothing 
but muddle through on his own and decide for himself. 
Life seems to have intended it this way, for no moral blue¬ 
print has ever been drawn up that covers all the situations 
for us beforehand so that we can be absolutely certain un¬ 
der which rule the situation comes. Such is the concrete¬ 
ness of existence that a situation may come under several 
rules at once, forcing us to choose outside any rule, and 
from inside ourselves. The most exhaustive ethical blueprint 
ever drawn up is the system of moral theology of the 
Catholic Church; and yet the Church has to supplement 
this by casuistry and the confessional. 

Most people, of course, do not want to recognize that 
in certain crises they are being brought face to face with 
the religious center of their existence. Such crises are simply 
painful and must be got through as quickly and easily as 
one can. Why, in any case, should the discovery of the 
religious come to us at the moment in which we feel most 
sundered and alone, as Abraham did on Mount Moriah or 
as Kierkegaard did face to face with his own deprivation? 
Kierkegaard’s answer to this is pretty traditional: “The fear 
of the Lord,” says the Bible, “is the beginning of wisdom”; 
and for modem man, before that fear and as a threshold 
to it, are the fear and trembling in which we begin to be 
a Self. 

That Kierkegaard, as a psychologist of religious experi¬ 
ence—as such he is without peer—dwells so much upon 
emotions like fear and trembling, anxiety or dread, and 
despair is often taken as an indication of the excessive mor¬ 
bidity of his temperament. Kierkegaard does show a cer¬ 
tain predilection for these moods, admittedly, or let us say 
at least that in dealing with them he is at his most potent, 
both dramatically and dialectically. What is important, 
however, is that there is no morbidity, no tinge either of 
exaggeration or sensationalism, in his treatment of these 
moods. Such moods are a part of life—a larger part than we 
modems like to believe—and Kierkegaard chooses to face 
up to them. If the abstractness of modem society can be 
said to lead to a repression of all the emotions, certainly 



the most deeply repressed are those we call “negative.” The 
“positive” emotions such as love or joy lend themselves to 
all kinds of sentimental caricatures in popular art, which 
are probably more damaging to the spirit than outright 
repression of such feelings would be. But what love does 
not know the ache of fear, what joy is not tinged with re¬ 
gret? Modem man is farther from the truth of his own 
emotions than the primitive. When we banish the shudder 
of fear, the rising of the hair of the flesh in dread, or the 
shiver of awe, we shall have lost the emotion of the holy 

The most powerful of Kierkegaard’s distinctly psycholog¬ 
ical treatises is probably The Sickness Unto Death , a study 
of the various modalities of despair. Despair is the sickness 
unto death, the sickness in which we long to die but cannot 
die; thus, it is the extreme emotion in which we seek to 
escape from ourselves, and it is precisely this latter aspect 
of despair that makes it such a powerful revelation of what 
it means to exist as a human individual. We are all in de¬ 
spair, consciously or unconsciously, according to Kierke¬ 
gaard, and every means we have of coping with this de¬ 
spair, short of religion, is either unsuccessful or demoniacal. 
Kierkegaard advances two general principles that are in 
advance of nearly all current psychologies: (1) Despair is 
never ultimately over the external object but always over 
ourselves. A girl loses her sweetheart, and falls into despair; 
it is not over the lost sweetheart that she despairs, but over 
herself-without-the-sweetheart: that is, she can no longer 
escape from herself into the thought or person of the be¬ 
loved. And so on, for all cases of loss, whether it be money, 
power, or social rank. The unbearable loss is not really in 
itself unbearable; what we cannot bear is that in being 
stripped of an external object we stand denuded and see 
the intolerable abyss of the self yawn at our feet. (2) The 
condition we call a sickness in certain people is, at its cen¬ 
ter, a form of sinfulness. We are in the habit nowadays of 
labeling morally deficient people as sick, mentally sick, or 
neurotic. This is true if we look at the neurotic from out¬ 
side: his neurosis is indeed a sickness, for it prevents him 



from functioning as he should, either totally or in some 
particular area of life. But the closer we get to any neurotic 
the more we are assailed by the sheer human perverseness, 
the willfulness, of his attitude. If he is a friend, we can up 
to a point deal with him as an object who does not function 
well, but only up to a point; beyond that if a personal re¬ 
lation exists between us we have to deal with him as a 
subject , and as such we must find him morally perverse or 
willfully disagreeable; and we have to make these moral 
judgments to his face if the friendship is to retain its human 
content, and not disappear into a purely clinical relation. 
At the center of the sickness of the psyche is a sickness of 
the spirit. Contemporary psychoanalysis will have eventu¬ 
ally to reckon with this Kierkegaardian point of view; 
among some schools there is already an uneasy edging in 
its direction. 

Kierkegaard’s insight is superior here because he is a “sub¬ 
jective thinker.” He thus plants himself within the subjec¬ 
tivity of the person, and his concern is with the “inward¬ 
ness” of the human being. But to see what this “inwardness” 
means we have now to consider the problem of truth 


If the religious level of existence is understood as a stage 
upon life’s way, then quite clearly the truth that religion is 
concerned with is not at all the same as the objective truth 
of a creed or belief. Religion is not a system of intellectual 
propositions to which the believer assents because he knows 
it to be true, as a system of geometry is true; existentially, 
for the individual himself, religion means in the end simply 
to be religious. In order to make clear what it means to be 
religious, Kierkegaard had to reopen the whole question of 
the meaning of truth. His was the first radical reappraisal 
of the subject since the thirteenth century when St. Thomas 
Aquinas’ monumental De Veritate had settled the mean¬ 
ing of truth for the next five centuries of philosophy; and 



like that earlier treatment, Kierkegaard’s stand on the ques¬ 
tion may well have marked a turning point in European 

Objective truth is easily recognized, and indeed today it 
has come to be almost the only sense of the term in our 
usage. If I know that twice two is four, this knowledge is in 
the highest degree impersonal; once I know it, I know it, 
and I need not struggle continuously to make it my own: 
it is a reliable piece of lumber in the mental attic, one on 
which I can put my hand any time I have need for it. But 
die truth of religion is not at all like that: it is a truth that 
must penetrate my own personal existence, or it is noth¬ 
ing; and I must struggle to renew it in my life every day. 
What is in question here, says Kierkegaard, is one’s own 
personal appropriation of the truth—“appropriation” com¬ 
ing from the Latin root proprius, meaning “one’s own.” A 
learned theologian may be in possession of all the so-called 
truths of rational theology, able to prove and disprove 
propositions and generally hold his own dialectically with 
the best; and yet in his heart God may have died or never 
lived. On the other hand, an illiterate peasant who knows 
nothing of formal theology, who may not even be able to 
state accurately the tenets of his creed, nevertheless may 
succeed in being religious. He is in the truth, as we say, 
and people who know him can recognize this fact from his 
presence, his bearing, his way of life. In the Oriental reli¬ 
gious and philosophical tradition, where truth has never 
been defined as belonging basically to the intellect, the 
Master is able to discern whether or not a disciple has at¬ 
tained enli gh tenment from how he behaves, what kind of 
a person he has come to be, not from hearing him reason 
about the Sutras. This kind of truth is not a truth of the 
intellect but of the whole man. Strictly speaking, subjective 
truth is not a truth that I have, but a truth that I am . 

In the thirteenth century St. Thomas banished Augustin- 
ianism or at least relegated it to a subsidiary place: truth 
in the strictest sense, he said, is in the intellect, and specifi¬ 
cally in the intellect as it forms propositions that corre¬ 
spond with reality. Starting with this understanding of 



truth, the centuries that followed were able to develop and 
consolidate all that we now know as science. But what hap¬ 
pens if the question is now reopened, and if philosophers 
go back for their answers to an older, prephilosophic un¬ 
derstanding of the meaning of truth? If we were to under¬ 
stand truth anew (and in this ancient sense), would not 
our fundamental attitudes be so changed that our whole 
civilization would become different? These are precisely 
the questions that, as we shall see, lie at the center of Hei¬ 
degger s philosophy. With Heidegger, philosophers have 
only just begun to think about what lies implicit in the 
Kierkegaardian distinction between subjective and objec¬ 
tive truth. 


When we advance from the aesthetic to the religious 
level of existence, Kierkegaard says, we become really seri¬ 
ous; we are not serious persons until we have become reli¬ 
gious. This seriousness has nothing to do with the solemnity 
of the bourgeois or the official—-that stuffed-shirtedness that 
Sartre has sneered at in the “salauds 9 ; it is the simple and 
forthright seriousness of someone who has at last arrived 
at his center, and who is therefore at last totally engaged 
in the project of his life, with all that it entails. This person 
exists under the eye of eternity, and therefore what he does 
in the moment is absolutely real. It is quite fitting therefore 
that the last act in Kierkegaard’s life should have been a 
thoroughly existential one: an attack upon the Christianity 
of his native Denmark, and by extension upon the public 
and acknowledged Christianity of the whole modem world. 
This polemic has been published in English as The Attack 
upon Christendom, but a good part of it Kierkegaard pub¬ 
lished as a series of pamphlets under the title The Instant. 
The title he gave these last writings, where thinking had in 
fact become an existential deed, as powerful as a blow of 
the fist, is significant, for it tells us that here the thinker 
stands and wills to stand thoroughly and absolutely rooted 
in his situation. Home is not only the place from which we 



start, but that to which we must inevitably return. When 
he had completed the last of the pamphlets, Kierkegaard 
collapsed; he had literally burned hims elf out, and two 
months later he was dead. He had done his work. 

Before he published those pamphlets, however, Kierke¬ 
gaard had set forth in an earlier essay, The Present Age , 
some criticisms of his time that were to prove b rillian tly 
prophetic; the essay has been the source of nearly all the 
Existentialist criticisms of modem society—including those 
by Jaspers, Ortega, Berdyaev, and Marcel. So well has 
Kierkegaard’s prophecy held up in fact that even contem¬ 
porary efforts at journalistic sociology, like Riesman s The 
Lonely Crowd or Whyte’s The Organization Man, , are still 
repeating and documenting his insights. The chief move¬ 
ment of modernity, Kierkegaard holds, is a drift toward 
mass society, which means the death of the individual as 
life becomes ever more collectivized and externalized. The 
social t hinkin g of the present age is determined, he says, 
by what might be called the Law of Large Numbers: it 
does not matter what quality each individual has, so long 
as we have enough individuals to add up to a large number 
—that is, to a crowd or mass. And where the mass is, there 
is truth—so the modem world believes. Behind this social 
observation, of course, lay Kierkegaard’s ultimate convic¬ 
tion that Christianity is something that concerns the indi¬ 
vidual alone; and this conviction, as the basis for his 
criticism of modem times, was not fully developed until 
his later polemic against contemporary Christendom. The 
Present Age , brilliant as it is, is merely a t unin g up for the 
full orchestral blast of The Attack upon Christendom. 

In the modem world it makes no sense and is in fact a 
gigantic swindle to speak of Christian nations, Christian 
states, or even Christian peoples: this is the sum and sub¬ 
stance of Kierkegaard’s attack. But his expression is so 
direct and powerful, he rings so many momentous changes 
upon this single theme, that The Attack upon Christendom 
takes its place among the greatest polemics ever written. 
The style itself is at the farthest remove from the fanciful 
complexity of his earliest aesthetic writings; here the ex- 



pression is direct, vigorous, even coarse. Kierkegaard had 
become serious, and with a vengeance. There can be no 
doubt now that against the smug complacency of his time 
that believed itself Christian and did not even know that it 
was not, Kierkegaard was in the right, and his polemic 
triumphs. But beyond the historical impact it had upon its 
own time, The Attack upon Christendom broaches the 
gravest questions about the possibility of religion becoming 
altogether institutionalized, and thereby brings Kierke¬ 
gaard to his final statement of what it means to be Chris¬ 
tian. Here, it seems to me, he goes against his earlier 
warning to himself that the Exception, the Single One or 
extraordinary individual, though he has to follow the law 
of his own being rather than that of the collective, cannot 
expect everybody else to follow his way. Kierkegaard seems 
to demand that the average person take up a Christianity 
as strenuous as his own. 

The problem of the institutionalizing of religion was 
dealt with by another existentialist, Dostoevski, in his tre¬ 
mendous parable of the Grand Inquisitor, and the contrast 
with Kierkegaard is singularly instructive. Intellectually, to 
be sure, Dostoevski was on the side of Kierkegaard, and the 
Grand Inquisitor he intended as a figure of evil, the totali¬ 
tarian master of men who gives them bread and peace and 
relieves them from the anguish of being themselves. But 
Dostoevski the novelist was caught up in the toils of a truth 
different from that of Dostoevski the intellectual: as a 
novelist he could not create a character without giving 
himself to it, creating it from the inside out and thereby 
giving the character its own truth. And as Dostoevski un¬ 
folds the parable (told through the mouth of Ivan Kara¬ 
mazov) there is no doubt that the Grand Inquisitor has his 
truth, which Christ Himself, having returned to earth, 
recognizes by bestowing a final kiss upon the Inquisitor’s 
cheek. But the polemicist, in the necessity of driving a 
point home, may lose sight of the novelist’s truth. Men are 
sheep, says the Inquisitor, and need to be relieved of the 
agony of selfhood. It will not do to say, as Kierkegaard does, 
that he represents not a Christian severity as opposed to a 



Christian leniency, but only a Christian honesty; for what 
is more severe than honesty, and particularly an honesty 
that would tell the sheep they can only live as sheep? Hu¬ 
mankind cannot bear very much reality, says T. S. Eliot; 
and it is doubtful whether they can even bear the reality 
of being told so. The Grand Inquisitor, the Pope of Popes, 
relieves men of the burden of being Christian, but at the 
same time leaves them the peace of believing they are 

Nietzsche, the passionate and religious atheist, insisted 
on the necessity of a religious institution, the Church, to 
keep the sheep in peace, thus putting himself at the op¬ 
posite extreme from Kierkegaard; Dostoevski in his story 
of the Grand Inquisitor may be said to embrace dialecti¬ 
cally the two extremes of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The 
truth lies in the eternal tension between Christ and the 
Grand Inquisitor. Without Christ the institution of religion 
is empty and evil, but without the institution as a means 
of mitigating it the agony in the desert of selfhood is not 
viable for most men. 

Nietzsche remarked that “the last Christian” died on the 
Cross. In a somewhat different spirit we might apply the 
term to Kierkegaard and say that he was the last Christian, 
or at least the last Christian writer. This may seem para¬ 
doxical, in view of the fact that present-day Protestant the¬ 
ology practically lives off Kierkegaard’s capital, Theologi¬ 
ans like Karl Barth and Emil Brunner stand for a severe as 
against a liberal Protestantism, and they follow Kierkegaard 
in stressing the absolute paradox of Faith. But nowhere in 
the work of these men do we hear the personal accent as 
we do in Kierkegaard; neither of them raises the question 
of Christianity, as did their predecessor, as something that 
in the end concerns only himself, or interrogates himself as 
to whether or not he can really hope to be a Christian at 
all. The systematic theology of Paul Tillich could be em¬ 
braced by any naturalist who was not too obtuse psycho¬ 
logically and was interested in religion as a system of sym¬ 
bols. The theology of Rudolf Bultmann is not much more 
than the philosophy of Heidegger touched with the emo- 



tions of Christianity. The fact is that Kierkegaard stated the 
question of Christianity so nakedly, made it turn so deci¬ 
sively about the individual and his quest for his own eternal 
happiness, that all religious writers after him seem by com¬ 
parison to be symbolical, institutional, or metaphorical—in 
a word, gnostic. Perhaps the very nakedness of Kierke¬ 
gaard's statement of faith makes it impossible for Christian¬ 
ity now to go anywhere but in the direction of some kind 
of gnosticism. The religious Existentialists of this century, 
such as Berdyaev and Marcel, do not match Kierkegaard's 
passion or his passionate cleaving to the central issue any 
more than the Protestant pastors do. The one exception to 
this would be Miguel Unamuno, whose passion is worthy 
of Kierkegaard and who in fact makes the whole question 
of religion hinge on the individual's desire for an eternal 
happiness-that and nothing less. The question of death is 
thus central to the whole of religious thought, is that to 
which everything else in the religious striving is an acces¬ 
sory: “If there is no immortality, what use is God?” Una¬ 
muno quotes an old peasant, approvingly. The comparison 
of these religious writers with Kierkegaard is not meant to 
disparage the former; they are all subtle, powerful, and 
profound, within their limits. It is meant rather to call at¬ 
tention to the fact that the quality of these writers' Chris¬ 
tianity is historically different from Kierkegaard's. They 
happen also to be lesser men than Kierkegaard, and there¬ 
fore perhaps any comparison is unfair. At any rate, it is 
fitting that the simplest and most profound tribute to Kier¬ 
kegaard should have come from the pen of Unamuno: “Y 
que hombrer — u And what a manl” 

If he had been carving the epitaph for his own tomb¬ 
stone, Kierkegaard said, he would have chosen nothing 
more than the simple phrase: The Individual . We do not 
yet know, but history may already have dug a grave for 
that individual for whom he was nearly the last to speak. 


Chapter Eight 

By the middle of the nineteenth century, as we have 
seen, the problem of man had begun to dawn on certain 
minds in a new and more radical form: Man, it was seen, 
is a stranger to himself and must discover, or rediscover, 
who he is and what his meaning is. Kierkegaard had rec¬ 
ommended a rediscovery of the religious center of the Self, 
which for European man had to mean a return to Chris¬ 
tianity, but what he had in mind was a radical return that 
went back beyond organized Christendom and its churches 
to a state of contemporaneity with the first disciples of 
Christ. Nietzsche’s solution harked back to an even more 
remote and archaic past: to the early Greeks, before either 
Christianity or science had put its blight upon the healthi¬ 
ness of man’s instincts. 

It was Nietzsche’s fate to experience the problem of man 
in a peculiarly personal and virulent forme At twenty-four, 
an unheard-of age in the German academic world, he be¬ 
came Professor of Classical Philology at the University of 
Basel. The letter of recommendation written for him on this 
occasion by his teacher, Ritschl, is almost one continuous 
exclamation of awe at the prodigy of culture being sent to 
Basel Besides being immensely learned in the classical lan¬ 
guages, Nietzsche showed extraordinary literary promise 
and was also a gifted musician. But this prodigy was also 
a very delicate and sickly youth, with weak eyesight and a 
nervous stomach. Nietzsche had undoubtedly inherited this 
fragile constitution, but in later years he tended to think 



resentfully that it had been brought about by the excessive 
labors of scholarship. At any rate, intensive study had not 
helped his health. He thus knew at first hand the war be¬ 
tween culture and vitality: he was himself, in fact, the field 
of battle between the two. He had to resign his professor¬ 
ship after ten years because of his poor health. Thereafter 
he became the wanderer and his shadow—to use the title 
of one of his books, which accurately describes his own life 
—traveling all over southern Europe in search of a health 
that he never could regain. In those disconsolate and lonely 
years all his glittering cultural attributes did not help him 
in the least; culture, in fact, was a screen between the wan¬ 
derer and the natural man that he strove to resurrect. As a 
scholarly bookworm he had not even known that he was 
unknown to himself, but when his eyesight became too poor 
to read books he began at last to read himself: a text that 
culture up to that time had obscured. 

Nietzsche had originally encountered the god Dionysus 
in his studies of Greek tragedy. Dionysus was the patron 
deity of the Greek tragic festivals, and so the cult of this 
god had received all the blessing of high culture, since it 
was associated with the most sublime and formally beau¬ 
tiful products of human art. On the other hand, the Dio¬ 
nysian cult reached back into the most primitive and ar¬ 
chaic eras of the Greek race. For Dionysus was the god of 
the vine, the god of drunken ecstasy and frenzy, who made 
the vine come to life in spring and brought all men together 
in the joy of intoxication. This god thus united miraculously 
in himself the height of culture with the depth of instinct, 
bringing together the warring opposites that divided Nietz¬ 
sche himself. The problem of reconciling these opposites 
was the central theme later of D. H. Lawrence, of Gide in 
his Immoralist (a fiction based upon Nietzsche’s life), and 
of Freud in one of his last and most significant works. Civili¬ 
zation and Its Discontents. It is still the most formidable 
problem of man in our twentieth, the psychoanalytic, cen¬ 
tury. Dionysus reborn, Nietzsche thought, might become a 
savior-god for the whole race, which seemed everywhere 
to show symptoms of fatigue and decline. The symbol of 



the god became so potent for Nietzsche that it ended—as 
only symbols can do—by taking possession of his life. He 
consecrated himself to the service of the god Dionysus. 

But Dionysus is a dangerous as well as an ambiguous 
god. Those in antiquity who meddled with him ended by 
being tom to pieces. When he took possession of his own 
followers he drove them to frenzies of destruction. He was 
called, among other names, “the homed one” and “the bull” 
by the Greeks, and in one of his cults was worshiped in 
the form of a bull who was ritually slaughtered and tom 
to pieces. So Dionysus himself, according to the myth, had 
been tom to pieces by the Titans, those formless powers 
of the subterranean world who were always at war with 
the enlightened gods of Olympus. The fate of his god over¬ 
took Nietzsche: he too was tom apart by the dark forces 
of the underworld, succumbing, at the age of forty-five, to 
psychosis. It may be a metaphor, but it is certainly not an 
exaggeration, to say that he perished as a ritual victim 
slaughtered for the sake of his god. 

It is equally true, and perhaps just another way of saying 
the same thing, that Nietzsche perished for the sake of the 
problems of life that he set out to solve. The sacrifice of a 
victim, in the ancient and primitive world, was supposed to 
bring blessings upon the rest of the tribe, but Nietzsche 
was one of those who bring not peace but a sword. His 
works have divided, shocked, and perplexed readers ever 
since his death, and at the low point of his posthumous 
fortune his name was polluted by a Nietzschean cult among 
the Nazis. Nevertheless, the victim did not perish in vain; 
his sacrifice can be an immense lesson to the rest of the 
tribe if it is willing to learn from him. Nietzsche's fate is 
one of the great episodes in man s historic effort to know 
himself. After him, the problem of man could never quite 
return to its pre-Nietzschean level. Nietzsche it was who 
showed in its fullest sense how thoroughly problematical is 
the nature of man: he can never be understood as an a n i m al 
species within the zoological order of nature, because he 
has broken free of nature and has thereby posed the ques¬ 
tion of his own meaning—and with it the meaning of nature 



as well—as his destiny. Nietzsche’s works are an immense 
mine of observations on the condition of man, one that we 
are still in the process of quarrying. 

Moreover, Nietzsche’s life stands in a double sense as a 
great warning to mankind, to be heeded lest we too suffer 
the fate of being tom apart like Dionysus Zagreus. He who 
would make the descent into the lower regions runs the risk 
of succumbing to what the primitives call “the perils of the 
soul”—the unknown Titans that lie within, below the sur¬ 
face of our selves. To ascend again from the darkness of 
Avemus is, as the Latin poet tells us, the difficult thing, 
and he who would make the descent had better secure his 
lines of communication with the surface. Communication 
means community, and the adventurer into the depths 
would do well to have roots in a human community and 
perhaps even the ballast, somewhere in his nature, of a little 
bit of Philistinism. Nietzsche lacked such lines of communi¬ 
cation, for he had cut himself off from the h uman com¬ 
munity; he was one of the loneliest men that ever existed. 
By comparison, Kierkegaard looks almost like a worldly 
soul, for he was at least solidly planted in his native 
Copenhagen, and though he may have been at odds with 
his fellow citizens, he loved the town, and it was his home. 
Nietzsche, however, was altogether and utterly homeless. 
He who descends must keep in touch with the surface, but 
on the other hand—and this is the other sense of Nietzsche’s 
warning—modem man may also be tom apart by the titanic 
forces within himself if he does not attempt the descent into 
Avemus. It is no mere matter of psychological curiosity but 
a question of life and death for man in our time to place 
himself again in contact with the archaic life of his uncon¬ 
scious. Without such contact he may become the Titan who 
slays himself. Man, this most dangerous of the animals, as 
Nietzsche called him, now holds in his hands the dangerous 
power of blowing himself and his planet to bits; and it is 
not yet even clear that this problematic and complex being 
is really sane. 




“In the end one experiences only oneself,” Nietzsche ob¬ 
serves in his Zarathustra, and elsewhere he remarks, in the 
same vein, that all the systems of the philosophers are just 
so many foims of personal confession, if we but had eyes 
to see it. Following this conviction, that the thinker cannot 
be separated from his thought, Nietzsche revealed himself 
in his work more fully than any philosopher before or since. 
Hence the best introduction to him may be the little auto¬ 
biographical book Ecce Homo , which is his own attempt to 
take stock of himself and his life. Nietzsche is not the most 
prepossessing figure, as we are introduced to him here, for 
in this work he was clearly already in the grip of the psy¬ 
chological malady that three years later was to bring on his 
breakdown. But he is a great enough figure that he can 
stand being approached from his weakest side. And did not 
he himself say we must divest philosophers of their masks, 
learn to see the thinker s shadow in his thought? Paradoxi¬ 
cal as it may sound, to praise Nietzsche properly we have 
also to say the worst possible things about him. This too is 
in line with his own principle, that good and bad in any 
individual are inextricably one, all the more so as the op¬ 
posing qualities become more extreme. All of Nietzsche— 
in his extremes of good and bad—is summed up in Ecce 
Homo , and it is precisely the all that he himself could not 

An unprejudiced psychological observer is at once fasci¬ 
nated and appalled by what he finds in Ecce Homo . The 
process of ego-inflation has already gone beyond the bounds 
of what we ordinarily call neurosis. And this inflation is al¬ 
ready tinged with curious distortions of the facts: Nietz¬ 
sche refers to himself swaggeringly as “an old artilleryman” 
as if he had had a robust military career, though we of 
course know that his service in the artillery was so brief 
as to be almost non-existent, and that it terminated with 
his illness after a fall from his horse. The relation with Lou 
Salome, which was in fact very slight, is described obliquely 
in such a fashion as to suggest that Nietzsche was a devil 



of a fellow with women. These are not the shallow lies of a 
calculating mind, but delusions in the systematic sense of 
psychopathology: that is, fantasies in which the man him¬ 
self has begun to live. He rails against the Germans, yet he 
himself is German to the marrow. And while he proclaims 
himself above all resentments, we are aware throughout of 
a thin skin that is smarting with resentment at his lack of 
readers and of recognition in Germany. Nietzsche speaks of 
himself as the greatest psychologist who ever lived; and 
while there is some basis for so grandiose a boast—he was 
indeed a great psychologist—the overwhelming question his 
book raises is why this psychologist has so little insight into 
himself. The vision of his true self, we suspect, would have 
been too terrifying for him to face. The fantasies, the de¬ 
lusions, the grandiose inflation of the ego are only devices 
to shield him from the sight of the other side of himself 
—of Nietzsche the sickly lonely man, emotionally starved, 
a ghost flitting from place to place, always without a home 
—the dwarf side, that is, of the giant about whom he boasts. 
Nietzsche’s systematic shielding of himself from the other 
side is relevant to his explanation of the death of God: Man 
killed God, he says, because he could not bear to have any¬ 
one looking at his ugliest side. Man must cease to feel guilt, 
he goes on; and yet one senses an enormous hidden guilt 
and feeling of inferiority behind his own frantic boasts. Yet, 
though the wind of madness may already be blowing 
through Ecce Homo , at the same time the powers of Nietz¬ 
sche’s mind were never more formidable. The style is as 
brisk and incisive as anything he wrote, as he lays before 
us in bold and simple outline the guiding pattern of his 
ideas. It is this split between madness and coherence that 
makes the book so paradoxical. How could the mind of this 
man have so split off from the rest of himself—and this in a 
thinker who, above all other philosophers, seemed to have 
found access to the unconscious? 

The title of the book itself Ecce Homo —“Behold the 
Man!”, the words of Pontius Pilate spoken about Christ— 
supplies a very definite clue. The imitation of Christ, in 
however remote and unconscious a form, is something that 



almost nobody raised a Christian can avoid. (“All my life 
I have compared myself with Christ,” exclaims the tramp 
in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.) Nietzsche had 
come from a line of Protestant pastors, had been raised in 
a very pious atmosphere, and was himself as a boy very 
devout. The religious influences of childhood are the hard¬ 
est things to extirpate; the leopard can as easily change his 
spots. Had Nietzsche merely lost his Christian faith, or even 
simply attacked it intellectually, these acts would in them¬ 
selves have been sufficient to create a conflict within him; 
but he went further by attempting to deny the Christian 
in himself, and thereby split himself in two. The symbol of 
Dionysus had possessed him intellectually; he identified 
with this pagan god (in one place in Ecce Homo he ac¬ 
tually speaks of himself as Dionysus), and thenceforth, 
with all the energy of mind that he could summon, he de¬ 
voted himself to elaborating the opposition between Dio¬ 
nysus and Christ. In the end, however, the symbol of Christ 
proved the more potent; and when his unconscious finally 
broke irremediably into the open, it was Christ who took 
possession of Nietzsche, as is shown by the letters written 
after his breakdown which he signed “The Crucified One.” 

In a life so filled with portents and omens it is remarkable 
that he should have recorded one—in a dream he had when 
a schoolboy of fifteen, at Pforta—that was prophetic of the 
central conflict out of which he was to write and live. In 
the dream he was wandering about in a gloomy wood at 
night, and after being terrified by “a piercing shriek from 
a neighboring lunatic asylum,” he met with a hunter whose 
“features were wild and uncanny.” In a valley “surrounded 
by dense undergrowth,” the hunter raised his whistle to his 
lips and blew such “a shrill note” that Nietzsche woke out 
of his nightmare. Now it is interesting that in this dream 
he had been on his way to Eisleben, Luther’s town; but 
on meeting the hunter it became a question of going in¬ 
stead to Teutschenthal (which means, German Valley). 
That is, the two roads diverge, one leading toward Lu¬ 
theran Christianity, the other toward the primeval pagan 
German soil. Being a classical scholar, Nietzsche preferred 



to let his wandering German god assume the Greek guise of 
Dionysus. It would be farfetched to make much of this 
dream if it were merely an isolated revelation, but it is in 
fact of a piece with the other dreams and visions that 
Nietzsche poured into his writings. Even the frightening 
prophecy of madness that occurs in the dream is echoed 
among the images of Zarathustra . Nietzsche’s life has all 
the characteristics of a psychological fatality. 

Now all these self-revelations that we have been discuss¬ 
ing, it might be said, reflect nothing but a pathological 
process, and therefore had best be left to one side while we 
discuss the philosophic ideas of this thinker. Unfortunately, 
nothing in life is nothing but; it is always something more. 
What we have been talking about is indeed a pathological 
process, but it is also a pathological process taking place 
in a thinker of genius, from whom the process thereby ac¬ 
quires an immense significance. It is just as much a mistake 
for interpreters of Nietzsche to cast aside this whole matter 
of Nietzsche’s sickness, as it was for the Philistines, shocked 
by his ideas, to discount them simply as the ravings of a 
madman. It may be that genius and neurosis are inextri¬ 
cably linked, as some recent discussions of the subject have 
held; in any case Nietzsche would be one of the prime ex¬ 
amples of the kind of truth neurosis, and even worse than 
neurosis, can be made to reveal for the rest of mankind. The 
pathological process in Nietzsche, which we have dealt 
with only briefly here, is in fact indispensable for an under¬ 
standing of the philosophic meaning of atheism as he tried 
to live it. Nietzsche was engaged in a process of tearing 
himself loose from his psychological roots at the very mo¬ 
ment in history that Western man was doing likewise-—only 
the latter did not know it. Up to that time man had lived 
in the childhood shelter of his gods or of God; now that all 
the gods were dead he was taking his first step into ma¬ 
turity. This, for Nietzsche, was the most momentous event 
in modem history, one to which all the social, economic, 
and military upheavals of the nineteenth and indeed of the 
coming twentieth century would, as he prophesied, be sec¬ 
ondary. Could mankind meet this awful challenge of be- 



coming adult and godless? Yes, said Nietzsche, because 
man is the most courageous animal and will be able to sur¬ 
vive even the death of his gods. The very process of tearing 
consciousness loose from its roots, which ends inevitably in 
Ecce Homo in the grandiose inflation of the ego, had for 
Nietzsche himself the significance of a supreme act of cour¬ 
age. Not a day goes by, he wrote in one of his letters, that 
I do not lop off some comforting belief. Man must live with¬ 
out any religious or metaphysical consolations. And if it was 
to be humanity's fate to become godless, he, Nietzsche, 
elected to be the prophet who would give the necessary 
example of courage. It is in this light that we must look 
upon Nietzsche as a culture hero: he chose, that is, to suffer 
the conflict within his culture in its most acute form and 
was ultimately tom apart by it. 

Now, there are atheists and atheists. The urbane atheism 
of Bertrand Russell, for example, presupposes the existence 
of believers against whom he can score points in an argu¬ 
ment and get off some of his best quips. The atheism of 
Sartre is a more somber affair, and indeed borrows some of 
its color from Nietzsche: Sartre relentlessly works out the 
atheistic conclusion that in a universe without God man is 
absurd, unjustified, and without reason, as Being itself is. 
Still, this kind of atheism seems to carry with it the bravado 
of one who is ranging himself on the side of a less sanguine 
truth than the rest of mankind. Nietzsche’s atheism, how¬ 
ever, goes even deeper. He projects himself into the situa¬ 
tion where God is really dead for the whole of mankind, 
and he shares in the common fate, not merely scoring points 
off the believers. Section 125 of The Joyful Wisdom, the 
passage in which Nietzsche first speaks of the death of God, 
is one of the most heart-rending things he ever wrote. The 
man who has seen the death of God, significantly enough, 
is a madman, and he cries out his vision to the unheeding 
populace in the market place, asking the question: “Do we 
not now wander through an endless Nothingness?” Here we 
are no longer dealing with the abstractions of logical argu¬ 
ment, but with a fate that has overtaken mankind. Of 
course, Nietzsche himself tried elsewhere to assume the 



witty mask of the libre penseur of the Enlightenment and 
to make brilliant aphorisms about God’s non-existence. And 
in his Zarathustra he speaks of “Zarathustra the godless” 
and even “the most godless.” But godless is one thing Nietz¬ 
sche certainly was not: he was in the truest sense possessed 
by a god, though he could not identify what god it was 
and mistakenly took him for Dionysus. In a very early 
poem, “To the Unknown God,” written when he was only 
twenty years old, he speaks about hims elf as a god- 
possessed man, more truthfully than he was later, as a phi¬ 
losopher, to be able to recognize: 

I must know thee. Unknown One, 

Thou who searchest out the depths of my soul. 

And blowest like a storm through my life. 

Thou art inconceivable and yet my kinsman! 

I must know thee and even serve thee. 

Had God really died in the depths of Nietzsche’s soul or 
was it merely that the intellect of the philosopher could not 
cope with His presence and His meaning? 

If God is taken as a metaphysical object whose existence 
has to be proved, then the position held by scientifically- 
minded philosophers like Russell must inevitably be valid: 
the existence of such an object can never be empirically 
proved. Therefore, God must be a superstition held by 
primitive and childish minds. But both these alternative 
views are abstract, whereas the reality of God is concrete, 
a thoroughly autonomous presence that takes hold of men 
but of which, of course, some men are more conscious than 
others. Nietzsche’s atheism reveals the true meaning of God 
—and does so, we might add, more effectively than a good 
many official forms of theism. He himself scoffs in one place 
at his being confused with the ordinary run of freethinkers, 
who have not the least understanding of his atheism. And 
despite the desperate struggle of the “godless Zarathustra,” 
Nietzsche remained in the possession of this Unknown God 
to whom he had paid homage in his youth. This possession 
is shown in its most violent form in Zarathustra (IV, 65), 
even though Nietzsche puts the words into the mouth of 


the Magician, an aspect of himself that he wishes to 

Thus do I lie. 

Bend myself, twist myself, convulsed 
With all eternal torture, 

And smitten 

By thee, cruelest huntsman, 

Thou unfamiliar—GOD 

At this point we are ready to see what takes place behind 
the scenes in Zaratkustra, where all the aforementioned 
themes become fully orchestrated. 


“zarathustra”; nietzsche as 


No adequate psychological commentary on Thus Spake 
Zarathustra has yet been written, perhaps because the ma¬ 
terials in it are so inexhaustible. It is a unique work of self¬ 
revelation but not at all on the personal or autobiographical 
level, and Nietzsche himself ostensibly does not appear in 
it; it is self-revelation at a greater, more primordial depth, 
where the stream of the unconscious itself gushes forth from 
the rock. Perhaps no other book contains such a steady 
procession of images, symbols, and visions straight out of 
the unconscious. It was Nietzsche’s poetic work and be¬ 
cause of this he could allow the unconscious to take over 
in it, to break through the restraints imposed elsewhere by 
the philosophic intellect. For this reason it is important be¬ 
yond any of his strictly philosophic books; its content is 
actually richer than Nietzsche’s own conceptual thought, 
and its symbols of greater wisdom and significance than he 
himself was able to grasp. 

Nietzsche hims elf has described the process of inspira¬ 
tion by which he wrote this book, and his description makes 
it clear beyond question that we are in the presence here 



of an extraordinary release of and invasion by the un¬ 

Can any one at the end of this nineteenth century have 
any distinct notion of what poets of a more vigorous pe¬ 
riod meant by inspiration? If not, I should like to describe 
it. . . . The notion of revelation describes the condition 
quite simply; by which I mean that something pro¬ 
foundly convulsive and disturbing suddenly becomes vis¬ 
ible and audible with indescribable definiteness and 
exactness. . . . There is an ecstasy whose terrific tension 
is sometimes released by a flood of tears, during which 
one’s progress varies from involuntary impetuosity to in¬ 
voluntary slowness. There is the feeling that one is utterly 
out of hand. . . . Everything occurs quite without voli¬ 
tion, as if in an eruption of freedom, independence, 
power and divinity. The spontaneity of the images and 
similes is most remarkable; one loses all perception of 
what is imagery and simile; everything offers itself as the 
most immediate, exact, and simple means of expression. 

“One loses all perception of what is imagery and simile” 
—that is to say, the symbol itself supersedes thought, be¬ 
cause it is richer in meaning. 

His most lyrical book, Zarathustra is also the expression 
of the loneliest Nietzsche. It has about it the icy and arid 
atmosphere not merely of the symbolic mountaintop on 
which Zarathustra dwells, but of a real one. Reading it, one 
sometimes feels almost as if one were watching a film of 
the ascent of Mount Everest, hearing the climber s sobbing 
gasp for breath as he struggles slowly to higher and still 
higher altitudes. Climbing a mountain is the aptest meta¬ 
phor for getting above ordinary humanity, and this pre¬ 
cisely is what Zarathustra-Nietzsche is struggling to do. One 
hears throughout the book, though, in the gasping breath 
of the climber, the lament of Nietzsche the man. 

The book begins with the recognition of this human 
relevance as Zarathustra, about to leave his mountain soli¬ 
tude, declares he is going down among men “once again 
to be a man.” The mountain is the solitude of the spirit. 



the lowlands represent the world of ordinary men. The 
same symbolic contrast appears in Zarathustra’s pet ani¬ 
mals, the eagle and the serpent: the one the creature of 
the upper air, the other the one that moves closest to the 
earth. Zarathustra, as the third element, symbolizes the 
union between the two animals, of high and low, heaven 
and earth. He is going down among men, he says, as the 
sun sets dipping into the darkness below the horizon. But 
the sun sets in order to be reborn the next morning as a 
young and glowing god. The book thus opens with the sym¬ 
bols of rebirth and resurrection, and this is in fact the real 
theme of Zarathustra: how is man to be reborn, like the 
phoenix, from his own ashes? How is he to become really 
healthy and whole? Behind this question we see the per¬ 
sonal shadow of Nietzsche’s own illness and his long strug¬ 
gle to regain health; Zarathustra is at once the idealized 
image of himself and the symbol of a victory, in the strug¬ 
gle for health and wholeness, that Nietzsche himself was 
not able to achieve in life. 

Despite the intensely personal sources of his theme, 
Nietzsche was dealing in this work with a problem that had 
already become central in German culture. Schiller and 
Goethe had dealt with it—Schiller as early as 1795 in his 
remarkable Letters on Aesthetic Education, and Goethe in 
his Faust . Schiller has given an extraordinarily clear state¬ 
ment of the problem, which was for him identical in all 
its salient features with the problem later posed by Nietz¬ 
sche. For man, says Schiller, the problem is one of forming 
individuals . Modem life has departmentalized, specialized, 
and thereby fragmented the being of man. We now face 
the problem of putting the fragments together into a whole. 
In the course of his exposition, Schiller even referred back, 
as did Nietzsche, to the example of the Greeks, who pro¬ 
duced real individuals and not mere learned abstract men 
like those of the modem age. Goethe was even closer to 
Nietzsche; Faust and Zarathustra are in fact brothers 
among books. Both attempt to elaborate in symbols the 
process by which the superior individual—whole, intact, 
and healthy—is to be formed; and both are identically “im- 



moral” in their content, if morality is measured in its usual 
conventional terms. 

Placed within the German cultural context, indeed, 
Nietzsche’s immoralism begins to look less extreme than the 
popular imagination has taken it to be; it is not even as 
extreme as he was led to make it appear in some of the 
bloody creations of his overheated imagination in his last 
work. The WtU to Tower. Goethe in Faust was every bit 
as much at odds with conventional morality as was Nietz¬ 
sche, but the old diplomatic fox of Weimar was a more 
tactful and better-balanced man and knew how to get his 
point across quietly, without shrieking it from the house¬ 
tops as Nietzsche did. The Faust of the second part of 
Goethe’s poem is already, as we have seen, something of a 
Nietzschean Superman, beyond ordinary good and evil. 
The story of the other, moral Faust is told in the popular 
sentimental opera of Gounod, in which the character sells 
himself to the Devil and wrongs a young girl; the whole 
thing comes to an end with the girl’s tragic death. But 
Goethe could not leave matters at this; the problem that 
had taken hold of him, through his creation of Faust, led 
him to look upon Gretchen’s tragedy simply as a stage along 
Faust’s way. A process of self-development such as his 
cannot come to a close because a young girl whom he has 
seduced goes crazy and dies. The strong man survives such 
disasters and becomes harder. The Devil, with whom Faust 
has made a pact, becomes in a real sense his servitor and 
subordinate, just as our devil, if joined to ourselves, may 
become a fruitful and positive force; like Blake before him 
Goethe knew full well the ambiguous power contained in 
the traditional symbol of the Devil. Nietzsche’s imm oralism, 
though stated much more violently, consisted in not much 
more than the elaboration of Goethe’s point: Man must in¬ 
corporate his devil of, as he put it, man must become better 
and more evil; the tree that would grow taller must send its 
roots down deeper. 

If Nietzsche was not able to contain himself as tactfully 
as Goethe, on this point, he nevertheless had something to 
shriek about: The whole of traditional morality, he be- 



lieved, had no grasp of psychological reality and was there¬ 
fore dangerously one-sided and false. To be sure, this had 
always been known but mankind, spouting ideals, had 
looked at such realities and winked, or adopted casuistry. 
But if one is going to live one’s life literally and totally by 
the Sermon on the Mount or Buddha’s Dhammapada , and 
one cannot manage to be a saint, one will end by making 
a sorry mess of oneself. Nietzsche’s point has already car¬ 
ried so far that today in our ordinary valuations we are 
actually living in a post-Nietzschean world, one in which 
the psychoanalyst sometimes finds it necessary to tell a pa¬ 
tient that he ought to be more aggressive and more selfish. 
Besides, what does the whole history of ethics amount to 
for that half, and more than half, of the human race, 
women, who deal with moral issues in altogether different 
terms from men? It amounts to rather a silly man-made 
affair that has very little to do with the real business of 
life. On this point Nietzsche has a perfectly sober and 
straightforward case against all those idealists, from Plato 
onward, who have set universal ideas over and above the 
individual’s psychological needs. Morality itself is blind to 
the tangle of its own psychological motives, as Nietzsche 
showed in one of his most powerful books. The Genealogy 
of Morals, which traces the source of morality back to the 
drives of power and resentment. There are other motives 
that Nietzsche did not see, or did not care to honor, but no 
one can deny that these two, power and resentment, have 
historically been part of the shadow behind the moralist’s 

But it is precisely here, in the context of the Faust- 
Zarathustra parallel, that the chief problem arises for Nietz¬ 
sche as man and moralist. Suppose the ethical problem be¬ 
comes the problem of the individual; the ethical question 
then becomes: How is the individual to nourish himself in 
order to grow? Once we set ourselves to reclaim that por¬ 
tion of h uman nature that traditional morality rejected- 
man’s devil, to put it symbolically—we face the immense 
problem of socializing and taming those impulses. Here the 
imagination of Faustian man tends to become much too 



highfalutin. For Western man Faust has become the great 
symbol of the titanically striving individual, so much so that 
the historian Spengler could use the term “Faustian culture” 
to denote the whole modem epoch of our dynamic conquest 
of nature. In Nietzsche’s Superman the spiritual tension 
would be even greater, for such an individual would be 
living at a higher level than all of humanity in the past. 
But what about the individual devil within the Superman? 
What about Zarathustra’s devil? So far as Nietzsche at¬ 
tempts to make the goal of this higher individual the goal 
of mankind, a fatal ambiguity appears within his ideal it¬ 
self. Is the Superman to be the extraordinary man, or the 
complete and whole man? Psychological wholeness does 
not necessarily coincide with extraordinary powers, and the 
great genius may be a crippled and maimed figure, as was 
Nietzsche himself. In our own day, of course, when men 
tend more and more to be miserable human fragments, 
the complete man, if such existed, would probably stand 
out from the others like a sore thumb, but he might not at 
all be a creature of genius or extraordinary powers. Will 
the Superman, then, be the titanically striving individual, 
dwelling on the mountaintop of the spirit, or will he be the 
man who has realized within the world his own individual 
capacities for wholeness? The two ideals are in contradic¬ 
tion—a contradiction that is unresolved in Nietzsche and 
within modem culture itself. 

The fact is that Zarathustra-Nietzsche did not come to 
terms with his own devil, and this is the crucial failure of 
Zarathustra in the book and of Nietzsche in his life. Con¬ 
sequently, it is also the failure of Nietzsche as a thinker. 
Not that Zarathustra-Nietzsche does not see his devil; time 
and again the latter pokes a wa rning fing er at Zarathustra, 
and like a good devil he knows how to assume many shapes 
and disguises. He is the clown who leaps over the rope- 
dancers head at the beginning of the book, he is the Ugliest 
Man, who has killed God, and he is the Spirit of Gravity, 
whom Zarathustra himself names as his devil—the spirit of 
heaviness which would pull his too high-soaring spirit to 
earth. Each time Zarathustra thrusts aside the warning 



finger, finding it merely a reason for climbing a higher 
mountain to get away from it. The most crucial revela¬ 
tion, however, comes in the chapter “The Vision and the 
Enigma” (III, 46), in which the warning figure becomes 
a dwarf sitting on Zarathustras back as the latter climbs 
a lonely mountain path. Zarathustra wants to climb up¬ 
ward, but the dwarf wants to pull him back to earth. “O 
Zarathustra,” the dwarf whispers to him, “thou didst throw 
thyself high, but every stone that is thrown must fall.” And 
then, in a prophecy the more menacing when applied to 
Nietzsche himself: “O Zarathustra, far indeed didst thou 
throw thy stone, but upon thyself will it recoill” This is the 
ancient pattern of the Greek myths: the hero who soars too 
high crashes to earth; and Nietzsche, as a scholar of Greek 
tragedy, should have given more respectful ear to the 
dwarfs warning. 

But why a dwarf? The egotism of Zarathustra-Nietzsche 
rates himself too high; therefore the figure in the vision, to 
right the balance, shows him to himself as a dwarf. 
The dwarf is the image of mediocrity that lurks within 
Zarathustra-Nietzsche, and that mediocrity was the most 
frightening and distasteful thing that Nietzsche was willing 
to see in himself. Nietzsche had discovered the shadow, the 
underside, of human nature, and he had correctly seen it 
as a side that is present inescapably in every human in¬ 
dividual. But he converted this perception into a kind of 
romantic diabolism; it amused him to play at being wicked 
and daring. He would have been prepared to meet his own 
devil if this devil had appeared in some grandiose form. 
Precisely what is hardest for us to take is the devil as the 
personification of the pettiest, paltriest, meanest part of our 
personality. Dostoevski understood this better than Nietz¬ 
sche, and in that tremendous chapter of The Brothers 
Karamazov where the Devil appears to Ivan, the brilliant 
literary intellectual nourished on the Romanticism of Schil¬ 
ler, it is not in the guise of a dazzling Miltonic Lucifer or 
a swaggering operatic Mephistopheles, but rather of a 
faded, shabby-genteel person, a little out of fashion and ri¬ 
diculous in his aestheticism—the perfect caricature of Ivan’s 



own aesthetic mind. This figure is the Devil for Ivan 
Karamazov, the one that most cruelly deflates his egotism; 
and Dostoevski’s genius as a psychologist perhaps never hit 
the nail on the head more accurately than in this passage. 
Nietzsche himself said of Dostoevski that he was the only 
psychologist from whom he had had anything to learn; the 
remark is terribly true, and in a profounder sense th an 
Nietzsche realized. 

Zarathustra—to return to him —is too touchy to acknowl¬ 
edge himself as this dwarf. He feels his courage challenged 
and believes it will be the supreme act of courage, the high¬ 
est virtue, to get rid of the dwarf. “Courage at last bade me 
stand still and say: Dwarf! Either thou or I!” It would have 
been wiser, and even more courageous, to admit who the 
dwarf really was and to say, not “Either thou or F but 
rather, “Thou and I (ego) are one self.” 

The vision shifts and pauses for a moment, and Nietzsche 
now presents us with the idea of the Eternal Return. This 
idea has an ambiguous status in Nietzsche. He tried to base 
it rationally and scientifically on the premise that if time 
were infinite and the particles in the universe finite, then 
by the laws of probability all combinations must repeat 
themselves over and over again eternally; and that there¬ 
fore everything, we ourselves included, must recur again 
and again down to the last detail. But to take this as a purely 
intellectual hypothesis does not explain why the idea of the 
Eternal Return had such a powerful hold upon Nietzsche’s 
emotions, and why, particularly, the idea is revealed at this 
most charged and visionary moment in Zarathustra. The 
circle is a pure archetypal form for the eternal; “I saw 
Eternity the other night,” says the English poet Va ughan, 
“Like a great ring of pure and endless light.” The idea of 
the Eternal Return thus expresses, as Unamuno has pointed 
out, Nietzsche’s own aspirations toward eternal and immor¬ 
tal life. On the other hand, the notion is a frightening one 
for a thinker who sees the whole meaning of manlnnfl to 
lie in the future, in the Superman that man is to become; 
for if all things repeat themselves in an endless cycle, and 
if man must come again in the paltry and botched form 



In which he now exists—then what meaning can man have? 
For Nietzsche the idea of the Eternal Return becomes the 
supreme test of courage: If Nietzsche the man must return 
to life again and again, with the same burden of ill health 
and suffering, would it not require the greatest affir mation 
and love of life to say Yes to this absolutely hopeless 

Zarathustra glimpses some of the fearful implications in 
this vision, for he remarks after expounding the Eternal Re¬ 
turn, "So I spoke, and always more softly: for I was afraid 
of my own thoughts, and afterthoughts.” Thereupon, in the 
dream, he hears a dog howl and sees a shepherd writhing 
on the ground, with a heavy black reptile hanging from his 
mouth. “Bitel” cries Zarathustra, and the shepherd bites the 
serpents head off and spits it far away. The uncanny vision 
poses its enigma to Zarathustra: 

Ye daring ones! Ye venturers and adventurers, and 
whoever of you have embarked with cunning sails on un¬ 
explored seas! Ye enjoyers of enigmas! 

Solve unto me the enigma that I then beheld, interpret 
for me the vision of the loneliest one. 

For it was a vision and a foresight. What did I then 
behold in parable? And who is it that must come some 

Who is the shepherd into whose throat the serpent 
thus crawled? Who is the man into whose throat all the 
heaviest and blackest will crawl? 

—The shepherd bit as my cry had admonished him; 
he took a good bite, and spit the head of the serpent far 
away:—and sprang up— 

No longer shepherd, no longer man—a transfigured be¬ 
ing, a light-surrounded being, that laughed. Never on 
earth laughed a man as he laughedl 

O my brethren, I heard a laughter which was no hu¬ 
man laughter. 

“Who is die shepherd into whose throat the serpent thus 
crawled?” He is Nietzsche himself, and both the serpent 



and the dwarf set for him the same task: to acknowledge 
“the heaviest and the blackest in himself.** We commonly 
speak of the truth as a bitter pill that we have to swallow, 
but the truth about ourselves may take even the more re¬ 
pulsive form of a reptile. Nietzsche does not swallow the 
serpent’s head; he denies his own shadow, and out of it he 
sees a transfigured being spring up. This being laughs with 
a laughter that is no longer human. We know this laughter 
all too well: it is the laughter of insanity. A few years ago 
Andr6 Breton, the surrealist, published an Anthologie de 
Yhumeur noir , in which was included one of Nietzsche’s let¬ 
ters written after his psychosis. If one did not know who 
the author was and what his condition was when he wrote 
it, one could indeed take the letter as a darling piece of 
surrealistic laughter, a high empty mad laughter. This is 
the laughter Nietzsche hears in his vision, and he speaks 
like a tragic character ironically ignorant of his own proph¬ 
ecy when he says, “It was a vision and a prevision.” This 
laughter already began to sound eerily in the pages of 
Ecce Homo. 

There is an inner coherence in the vision of Zarathustra, 
in that each of its three parts—the dwarf, the Eternal Re¬ 
turn, and the shepherd spitting out the serpent—presents an 
obstacle and objection to Nietzsche’s utopian conception of 
the Superman. They prefigure his own personal catastro¬ 
phe; but since he was a thinker who really lived his 
thought, they indicate the fatal flaw in all such utopian 
thought. He who would launch the Superman into inter¬ 
stellar space had better recognize that the dwarf goes with 
him. “Human, all too human!” Nietzsche exclaimed in dis¬ 
gust at mankind as it had hitherto existed. But he who 
would try to improve man might do well not to make him 
inhuman but, rather, a little more human. To be a whole 
man—a round man, as the Chinese say—Western man may 
have to learn to be less Faustian. A touch of the average, 
the mediocre, may be necessary ballast for human nature. 
The antidote to the hysterical, mad laughter of Zarathus- 
tra’s vision may be a sense of humor, which is some thing 


Nietzsche, despite his brilliant intellectual wit, conspicu¬ 
ously lacked. 

The conclusions we have reached here on a psychologi¬ 
cal level become confirmed when we turn to Nietzsche's 
systematic philosophy of power. 


Nietzsche is considered by many philosophers to be an 
unsystematic thinker. This view, a mistaken one, is based 
largely on the external form of his writings. He loved to 
write aphoristically, to attack his subjects indirectly and 
dramatically rather than in the straightforward solemn form 
of a pedantic treatise; he was one of the great prose stylists 
of the German language, and in his writing he could not, 
or would not, deny the artist in himself. He even went so 
far as to say that he was viewing science and philosophy 
through the eyes of art. But beneath and throughout all 
these belletristic forays a single consuming idea was mov¬ 
ing in him toward a systematized development. As think¬ 
ing gradually took over the whole person, and everything 
else in his life being starved out, it was inevitable that this 
thought should tend to close itself off in a system. At the 
end of his life he was making notes for a great systematic 
work which would be the complete expression of his phi¬ 
losophy. This work we now have in unfinished form in The 
WiU to Power. The increase in systematization in Nietz¬ 
sche's work is in many ways a psychological loss, since in 
purs uin g his thematic idea he lost sight of the ambiguity 
in matters of the human psyche. However, there is a gain 
as well, for by carrying his ideas to the end he lets us see 
what they finally amount to. Heidegger has, in a recent 
memorable essay, called attention to the hitherto unrecog¬ 
nized fact that Nietzsche is a thoroughly systematic thinker. 
Indeed, according to Heidegger, Nietzsche is the last meta¬ 
physician in the metaphysical tradition of the West, the 
thinker who at once completes and destroys that tradition. 

We do not know when the idea of the Will to Power 
first dawned upon Nietzsche, but there is a striking and 



picturesque incident, which he later told to his sister, that 
is relevant to it: During the Franco-Prussian War, when 
Nietzsche was a hospital orderly, he saw one evening his 
old regiment ride by, going into battle and perhaps to 
death, and it came to him then that “the strongest and high¬ 
est will to life does not lie in the puny struggle to exist, but 
in the Will to war, the Will to Power.” But it is a mistake to 
locate the birth of this idea in any single experience; it was, 
in fact, fed by a number of tributary streams, by Nietz¬ 
sche’s struggle against ill health and also by his studies 
in classical antiquity. Nietzsche’s greatness as a classical 
scholar lay in his ability to see plain and simple facts that 
the genteel tradition among scholars had passed over. The 
distinguished British classicist F. M. Comford has said of 
Nietzsche that he was fifty years ahead of the classical 
scholarship of his day; the tribute was meant to be gen¬ 
erous, but I am not sure that the classical scholarship of 
our own day has yet caught up with Nietzsche. It requires 
much more imagination to grasp the obvious than the 
recondite, and a kind of imagination that Nietzsche had 
much more of than the classical scholars of his time. Take, 
for example, the obvious fact that the noble Greeks and 
Homans owned slaves and thought this quite natural; and 
that because of this they had a different orientation toward 
existence than did the Christian civilization that followed 
them. The humanistic tradition among classical scholars 
had idealized the ancients, and thereby, as in all idealistic 
views, falsified the reality. One does not need to be much 
of a classical specialist to note, on the first page of Julius 
Caesar’s Gallic Wars , that the word virtus, virtue, means 
courage and martial valor—just the kind of thing that a mili¬ 
tary commander would most fear in the enemy and most 
desire in his own soldiers. (It is one of the odd develop¬ 
ments of history—as one philosophical wag put it, making 
thereby a perfectly Nietzschean joke—that the word “vir¬ 
tue,” which originally meant virility in a man, came in Vic¬ 
torian times to mean chastity in a woman.) Nor does it 
require any greater classical scholarship to recognize in the 
Greek word that we translate as virtue, arete , the clanging 



tone of Ares, god of battle. Classical civilizations rested on 
the recognition of power, and the relations of power, as a 
natural and basic part of life. 

Nietzsche’s idea also reflected the modem influence of 
Stendhal and Dostoevski, the two nineteenth-century nov¬ 
elists whom he most admired. Stendhal had shown the com¬ 
ponents of ego and power mingled in all the exploits of 
Eros: in the arts of seduction and conquest, in the battle of 
the sexes. Dostoevski had revealed how the most self- 
abasing acts of humility could be brutally aggressive. Nietz¬ 
sche’s own psychological acuity, however, once started on 
this path, did not need much prompting. He was able to 
see the Will to Power secretly at work everywhere in the 
history of morals: in the asceticism of the saint and the 
resentment of the condemning moralist, as well as in the 
brutality of the primitive legislator. All his separate insights 
on the theme accumulated finally in a single monolithic 
idea of all-comprehending universality: the Will to Power 
was in fact the innermost essence of all beings; the essence 
of Being itself. 

Now, it is one thing to perceive that all the psychological 
impulses of man are mingled in some way with the impulse 
to power; it is quite another thing to say that this impulse 
toward power is the basic impulse to which all the others 
may be reduced. We are faced at once with that problem 
of reduction which haunts particularly the battle among the 
modem schools of psychology. As is well known, the in¬ 
dividual psychology of Alfred Adler split off from Freudian 
psychoanalysis over just this point—Adler, who had read 
Nietzsche, declaring that the Will to Power was basic, 
Freud maintaining that sexuality and Eros were. But what 
—to confound matters by speaking paradoxically—if both 
are right and both wrong? What if the human psyche can¬ 
not be carved up into compartments and one compartment 
wedged in under another as being more basic? What if such 
dichotomizing really overlooks the organic unity of the hu¬ 
man psyche, which is such that a single impulse can be 
just as much an impulse toward love on the one hand as 
it is toward power on the other? Dostoevski, at least as a 



novelist, preserves this sense of duality and ambivalence; 
and Nietzsche too, where his intuition was functioning as 
concretely as a novelist’s, saw this interplay between power 
and the other drives, (in Beyond Good and Evil he re¬ 
marked, rather as a good Freudian than an Adlerian, “The 
degree and nature of a mans sensuality extends to the high¬ 
est altitudes of his spirit.”) But later he had Zarathustra 
the loveless declare that “Love is the danger of the loneliest 
one,” and suppress love and compassion; and so Nietzsche 
gave the last word to the Will to Power, making it the basis 
of every other psychological motive; he became one of the 
reductive psychologists. 

What is most remarkable is that this Will to Power 
should have been made by him into the essence of Being. 
Remarkable because Nietzsche had ridiculed the very no¬ 
tion of Being as one of the most deceptive ghosts spawned 
by the brains of philosophers, the most general and there¬ 
fore the emptiest of concepts, a thin and impalpable ecto¬ 
plasm distilled from the concrete realities of the senses. He 
had perceived correctly that the principal conflict within 
Western philosophy lay at its very beginning, in Plato’s con¬ 
demnation of the poets and artists as inhabiting the world 
of the senses rather than the supersensible world of the ab¬ 
stractions, the Ideas, which represent true Being as opposed 
to the constant flux of Becoming in the world of the senses. 
Nietzsche took the side of the artist: The real world, he 
said, than which there is no other, is the world of the senses 
and of Becoming. Nevertheless, to become a systematic 
thinker Nietzsche had to become a metaphysician, and the 
metaphysician is driven to have recourse to the idea of Be¬ 
ing. To be sure, Nietzsche’s thought preserves his dyna¬ 
mism, for Being is turned into Becoming—becomes, in fact, 
essentially the Will to Power. 

But what is power? It is not, according to Nietzsche, a 
state of rest or stasis toward which all things tend. On die 
contrary, power itself is dynamic through and thro ugh : 
power consists in the discharge of power, and this means 
the exercise of the will to power on ever-ascending levels of 



power. Power itself is the will to power. And the will to 
power is the will to will. 

It is at this point that Nietzsche’s doctrine begins to look 
rather terrifying to most people, and to seem merely an ex¬ 
pression of his own frenetic and unbalanced temperament 
Frenetic he had certainly become, in many passages of The 
WiU to Tower, where indeed he resembles nothing so much 
as “the pale Criminal” of his own description (in Zarathus - 
tra), the loveless one who thirsts for blood. But here, as 
elsewhere, the personal frenzy of Nietzsche had a much 
more than personal meaning; and precisely in this idea of 
power he was the philosopher of this present age in history, 
for he revealed to it its own hidden and fateful being. No 
wonder, then, that the age should have branded him as a 
wicked and malevolent spirit. 

The fact is that the modem age has prided itself every¬ 
where on its dynamism. In history textbooks we represent 
the emergence of the modem period out of the Middle Ages 
as the birth of an energetic and dynamic will to conquer 
nature and transform the conditions of life, instead of sub¬ 
mitting passively to them while waiting to be sent to the 
next world as medieval man had done. We congratulate 
ourselves over and over again on all this. But when a thinker 
comes along who seeks to explore what lies hidden behind 
vail this dynamism, we cry out that we do not recognize 
ourselves in the image he draws and seek refuge from it 
by pointing an accusing finger at his derangement. Tech¬ 
nology in the twentieth century has taken such enormous 
strides beyond that of the nineteenth that it now bulks 
larger as an instrument of naked power than as an instru¬ 
ment for human well-being. Now that we have airplanes 
that fly faster than the sun, intercontinental missiles, space 
satellites, and above all atomic explosives, we are aware 
that technology itself has assumed a power to which politics 
in any traditional sense is subordinate. If the Russians were 
to outstrip us decisively in technology, then all ordinary po¬ 
litical calculations would have to go by the boards. The 
classical art of politics, conceived since the Greeks as a thor¬ 
oughly human art addressed to h umans , becomes an out- 



moded and fragile thing beside the massive accumulation 
of technological power. The fate of the world, it now ap¬ 
pears, tunas upon sheer mastery over things. All the refine¬ 
ments of politics as a human art—diplomatic tact and 
finesse, compromise, an enlightened and liberal policy, good 
will—are as little able to avail against technological suprem¬ 
acy as the refinement of a man’s dress and person are able 
to ward off the blow of a pile driver. The human becomes 
subordinated to the machine, even in the traditionally hu¬ 
man business of politics. 

Here Nietzsche, more acutely than Marx, expresses the 
real historical meaning of Communism and especially of the 
peculiar attraction Communism holds for the so-called 
backward or underdeveloped countries: it is a will to power 
on the part of these peoples, a will to take their fate in 
their own hands and make their own history. This power¬ 
ful and secret appeal of Communism is something that our 
own statesmen do not seem in the least to understand. And 
America itself? Yes, we bear with us still the old liberal 
ideals of the individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pur¬ 
suit of happiness; but the actual day-to-day march of our 
collective life involves us in a frantic dynamism whose ulti¬ 
mate goals are undefined. Everywhere in the world, men 
and nations are behaving precisely in accordance with the 
Nietzschean metaphysics: The goal of power need not be 
defined, because it is its own goal, and to halt or slacken 
speed even for a moment would be to fall behind in achiev¬ 
ing it. Power does not stand still; as we say nowadays in 
America, you are either going up or coming down. 

But on what, philosophically speaking, does this cele¬ 
brated dynamism of the modem age rest? The modem era 
in philosophy is usually taken to begin with Descartes. The 
fundamental feature of Descartes’ thought is a dualism be¬ 
tween the ego and the external world of nature. The ego 
is the subject, essentially a thinking substance; nature is the 
world of objects, extended substances. Modem philosophy 
thus begins with a radical subjectivism, the subject fac¬ 
ing the object in a kind of hidden antagonism. (This sub¬ 
jectivism has nothing to do with Kierkegaard’s idea of 



“subjective truth”; Kierkegaard simply chose his term un¬ 
fortunately, for his intention is the very opposite of Carte- 
sianism.) Nature thus appears as a realm to be conquered, 
and man as the creature who is to be conqueror of it. This 
is strikingly shown in the remark of Francis Bacon, prophet 
of the new science, who said that in scientific investigation 
man must put nature to the rack in order to wring from 
it an answer to his questions; the metaphor is one of 
coercion and violent antagonism. A crucial step beyond 
Descartes was taken when Leibniz declared that material 
substances are not inert, as Descartes thought, but endowed 
with a fundamental dynamism: all things have a certain 
drive (appeHtio) by which they move forward in time. 
Here the Cartesian antagonism between man and nature is 
stepped up by having added to it an intrinsic dynamism on 
both sides. Nietzsche is the culmination of this whole line 
of thought: the thinker who brings the seed to its violent 
fruition. The very extremity of his idea points to a funda¬ 
mental error at the source of the modem epoch. Whether 
or not it points beyond that to a fundamental error at the 
root of the whole Western tradition, as Heidegger holds, is 
another matter, and one that we shall examine in the con¬ 
text of Heidegger s own philosophy. 

Power as the pursuit of more power inevitably founders 
in the void that lies beyond itself. The Will to Power begets 
the problem of nihilism. Here again Nietzsche stands as the 
philosopher of the period, for he prophesied remarkably 
that nihilism would be the shadow, in many guises and 
forms, that would haunt the twentieth century. Supposing 
man does not blow himself and his earth to bits, and that 
he really becomes the master of this planet. What then? 
He pushes off into interstellar space. And then? Power for 
powers sake, no matter how far the power is extended, 
leaves always the dread of the void beyond. The attempt to 
stand face to face with that void is the problem of nihilism. 

For Nietzsche, the problem of nihilism arose out of the 
discovery that “God is dead.” “God” here means the his¬ 
torical God of the Christian faith. But in a wider philo¬ 
sophical sense it means also the whole realm of supersensi- 



ble reality—Platonic Ideas, the Absolute, or what not—that 
philosophy has traditionally posited beyond the sensible 
realm, and in which it has located mans highest values. 
Now that this other, higher, eternal realm is gone, Nietz¬ 
sche declared, man’s highest values lose their value. If man 
has lost this anchor to which he has hitherto been moored, 
Nietzsche asks, will he not drift in an infinite void? The 
only value Nietzsche can set up to take the place of these 
highest values that have lost their value for contemporary 
man is: Power. 

But do we today really have any better answer? An an¬ 
swer, I mean, that we live and not just pay lip service to? 
Nietzsche is more truly the philosopher for our age than 
we are willing to admit. To the degree that modem life 
has become secularized those highest values, anchored in 
the eternal, have already lost their value. So long as people 
are blissfully unaware of this, they of course do not sink 
into any despondency and nihilism; they may even be 
steady churchgoers. Nihilism, in fact, is the one subject on 
which we speak today with the self-complacency of com¬ 
mencement-day orators. We are always ready to invoke the 
term against a new book or new play that has anything 
“negative” to say, as if nihilism were always to be found in 
the other person but never in ourselves. And yet despite 
all its apparently cheerful and self-satisfied immersion in 
gadgets and refrigerators American life, one suspects, is 
n ih i lis tic to its core. Its final “What for?” is not even asked, 
let alone answered. 

Man, Nietzsche held, is a contradictory and complex be¬ 
ing, and he himself is as complex and contradictory an ex¬ 
ample as one could find. One has the feeling in reading 
him that those ultimate problems with which he dealt 
would have been enough almost to drive any m an mad. 
Was it necessary that he be deranged in order to reveal 
the secret derangement that lies coiled like a dragon at the 
bottom of our epoch? He does not bring us any solutions 
that satisfy us to the great questions he raises, but he has 
stated the central and crucial problems for man in this pe- 


riod, as no one else has, and therein lies at once his great¬ 
ness and his challenge. 

And Nietzsche’s fate might very well prefigure our own, 
for unless our Faustian civilization can relax its frantic 
dynamism at some point, it might very well go psychotic. 
To primitives and Orientals, we Western men already seem 
half crazy. But it will not do merely to assert blandly that 
the tension of this dynamism has to be relaxed somehow 
and somewhere; we need to know what in our fundamental 
way of thinking needs to be changed so that the frantic 
will to power will not appear as the only meaning we can 
give to human life. If this moment in Western history is 
but the fateful outcome of the fundamental ways of thought 
that he at the very basis of our civilization—and particularly 
of that way of thought that sunders man from nature, sees 
nature as a realm of objects to be mastered and conquered, 
and can therefore end only with the exaltation of the will 
to power—then we have to find out how this one-sided and 
ultimately nihilistic emphasis upon the power over things 
may be corrected. 

This means that philosophers must take up the task 
of rethinking Nietzsche’s problems back to their sources, 
which happen also to be the sources of our whole Western 
tradition. The most thoroughgoing attempt at this, among 
philosophers in the twentieth century, has been made by 
Heidegger, who is, as we shall now see, engaged in nothing 
less than the Herculean task of digging his way patiently 
and laboriously out of the Nietzschean ruins, like a survivor 
out of a bombed city. 


Chapter Nine 

Wecannothear the cry of Nietzsche, Heidegger tells 
us, until we ourselves begin to think. And lest we fancy this 
an easy and obvious thing to do, he adds: “Thinking only 
begins at the point where we have come to know that Rea¬ 
son, glorified for centuries, is the most obstinate adversary 
of thinking.” 

This rather sensational opposition of thinking to reason 
goes against all the catch phrases of our culture. Heidegger 
is not a rationalist, because reason operates by means of 
concepts, mental representations, and our existence eludes 
these. But he is not an irrationalist either. Irrationalism 
holds that feeling, or will, or instinct are more valuable and 
indeed more truthful than reason—as in fact, from the point 
of view of life itself, they are. But irrationalism surrenders 
the field of thinking to rationalism and thereby secretly 
comes to share the assumptions of its enemy. What is 
needed is a more fundamental kind of thinking that will 
cut under both opposites. Heidegger's statement points 
backward through the whole philosophic tradition with 
which his own thought is intended as a decisive break and 
at the same time forward to a new territory in which, as 
he says of himself, he is like a wanderer lost in a forest, 
attempting to mark out trails. And his statement tells us 
that if we his contemporaries would assimilate his tho ught , 
we too must learn to think, even in opposition to all our 
inherited rigidities of reason; think more rigorously than 
rationalism ever did. 



Kierkegaard and Nietzsche fell like block-busters upon 
the quiet world of academic philosophy. They were philos¬ 
ophers outside the Academy, a new and revolutionary thing 
for modem times, and consequently they wrote not as pro¬ 
fessors but as poets: their books are passionate and colorful, 
addressed to all men and not merely to the professionals. 
Heidegger by contrast is a thoroughly academic figure, a 
professor, and the mark of this is upon all his writings. He 
never expresses himself with the radical boldness and pas¬ 
sion of a Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, but his message swathed 
though it may be in academic and formal lingo may never¬ 
theless prove in the end to be as dramatic and fateful a 
bombshell as were those of his two predecessors. 

Heidegger clearly belongs—as may be gathered from the 
statement of his quoted above—to that line of development 
within modem culture that we discussed earlier (in Chap¬ 
ter 6) as the flight from Laputa. But his escape from the 
aery realm of pure reason has been planned more system¬ 
atically and quietly than those of the other antagonists of 
Laputa, and in carrying it out Heidegger reaches back be¬ 
yond the situation of modem man into the beg inn i n gs of 
Western thought among the Greeks. Both Kierkegaard and 
Nietzsche point up a profound dissociation, or split, that 
has taken place in the being of Western man, which is 
basically the conflict of reason with the whole man. Accord¬ 
ing to Kierkegaard, reason threatens to swallow up faith; 
Western man now stands at a crossroads forced to choose 
either to be religious or to fall into despair. Having chosen 
the former, he must, being rooted historically in Christian¬ 
ity, enact a radical renewal of the Christian faith. For 
Nietzsche the era of reason and science raises the question 
of what is to be done with the primitive instincts and pas¬ 
sions of man; in pushing these latter aside the age threatens 
us with a decline in vitality for the whole species. What 
lies behind both prophetic messages is the perception that 
man is estranged from his own being. Now, the estrange¬ 
ment from Being itself is Heidegger's central theme. But he 
attacks this problem on its own terms and as a systematic 
thinker, and so his writings do not shine with the bold and 



striking colors of religious and psychological prophecy. The 
emotional, vital, and religious regeneration of modem man 
is something altogether outside his concern as a thinker. The 
problem as he puts it to himself is quite different: Granted 
that modem man has tom himself up by his roots, might 
not the cause of this lie farther back in his past than he 
thinks? Might it not, in fact, lie in the way in which he 
thinks about the most fundamental of all things, Being it¬ 
self? And might not a more rooted kind of thinking—rooted 
in Being—lead the rootless Laputan back to the earth? Hei¬ 
degger deals in a radical way with the celebrated alienation 
of modem man, and indeed with the problem of man gen¬ 
erally, by subordinating it to something else, without which 
man can never regain his roots: to Being itself. 

Heideggers text is on the whole so austerely devoid of 
metaphor that when one does occur it stands out in our 
memory like a solitary tree on a plain. In one of his more 
exoteric messages, the Letter on Humanism (1947), Hei¬ 
degger concludes with an especially memorable figure that 
describes very aptly the whole direction of his own thought: 
the thinker, he says, is trying to trace a furrow in human 
language as the peasant traces a furrow across a field. 
Heidegger himself is of peasant stock, strongly attached to 
his native region of southern Germany, and one feels thfg 
attachment to the soil in his thinking. “Remain true to the 
earth,” Zarathustra had counseled his followers; and Hei¬ 
degger as a thinker, despite the apparent abstractness of 
his themes, comes much closer to obeying this counsel than 
did the unlucky Nietzsche. The picture of man that emerges 
from Heidegger’s pages is of an earth-bound, time-bound, 
radically finite creature—precisely the image of man we 
should expect from a peasant, in this case a peasant who 
has the whole history of Western philosophy at his finger¬ 
tips. And for precisely this reason if for no other we today, 
who have gone so far from the soil, ought to find great 
significance in this philosophy. 

In this same Letter on Humanism Heidegger also permits 
himself a brief personal aside, which is also rare in the 
scrupulous impersonality of his writings. He is complaining 



about some of the misunderstandings of his thought (and 
on this score he has good grounds for complaint), and he 
remarks: “Because we hark back to Nietzsche’s saying 
about the ‘death of God * people take such an enterprise 
for atheism. For what is more ‘logical? than to consider the 
man who has experienced the ‘death of God as a Godless 
person .” Even here the personal meaning is oblique; Hei¬ 
degger refers to himself objectively and in the third person. 
Nevertheless, it is the closest he comes in his writings to a 
personal spiritual confession. Heidegger has experienced the 
death of God, and this death casts a shadow over all his 
writings; but he announces it quietly, almost indirectly, 
while the madm an in Nietzsche's Joyful Wisdom shouted 
it out in the market place. And this change of tone in itself 
shows how far history has moved from Nietzsche’s day, 
when the discovery of God’s death was a rending and 
prophetic vision, to our own, when the death of God is ad¬ 
mitted calmly and the thinker tries to take sober stock of 
the situation. Heidegger s philosophy is neither atheism nor 
theism, but a description of the world from which God is 
absent. It is now the night of the world, Heidegger says, 
quoting the poet Holderlin; the god has withdrawn him¬ 
self, as the sun sets below the horizon. And meanwhile the 
think er can only redeem the time by seeking to understand 
what is at once nearest and farthest from man: his own 
being and Being itself. Heidegger has described Holderlin’s 
poetry as a "temple without a shrine,” a description which 
really fits his own philosophy. If the god, reborn, returns, 
his temple will be ready for him, thanks to Heidegger; but 
it will take someone else, with a little more fire, to build 
the shrine and light the candles. And if the god does not 
come back, the temple can be converted into an imposing, 
if bleak, secular edifice, as in the case of Sartre, the atheist 
engagi. Both atheist and theist have to reckon with Heideg¬ 
ger’s thought, for he is dealing with matters with which 
both will have to come to terms, if in their separate creeds 
they are to measure up to the height of our times. It may 
even be that atheism and theism, as public creeds, matter 



less than our becoming alive to these things that Heidegger 
is struggling to bring to light. 


But what about Being, the reader may ask, impatiently. 
After so many centuries can we really be told something 
new and significant—above all, significant to us as busy 
modems—on this apparently very remote and abstract sub¬ 
ject? The impatience itself comes out of a certain attitude 
or orientation toward Being, of which we are on the whole 
unconscious. We want to know about things, beings, and 
particularly we want to have information about definite and 
observable traits of these beings; what lies behind this, in 
the enveloping background of all beings, seems to have lit¬ 
tle to do with our practical needs, the bulk of which are 
concerned with mastering the things in our environment. 
This is nothing less than the endemic positivism of our age; 
and there is no doubt that Positivism as a philosophy has 
simply given expression to this prevailing attitude toward 

Nevertheless, Being has been the central and dominating 
concept of twenty-five hundred years of Western philoso¬ 
phy; and if we are going to jettison all that past, we ought 
at least to know what was at stake, intellectually speaking, 
in the slow unfolding of those centuries. Some of our 
present-day philosophers fortify the prejudice of the age by 
telling us that the concern with Being is merely a linguistic 
accident, due to the fact that the Indo-European languages 
have the copula “to be,” whereas other languages have no 
such word and consequently no empty verbal battles about 
the meaning of Being. But the Indo-European languages 
cut a pretty wide swath in history, and it happens to be our 
swath, our tradition, with which we must come to terms. 

That tradition itself, however, is also to blame for our 
contemporary indifference to Being. And precisely in this 
matter the bold quality of Heidegger’s thought shows itself: 
he is working within this tradition but he is also seeking to 
destroy it—destroy it creatively so that it may surpass itself. 



In his greatest book, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) pub¬ 
lished in 1927, which has become a kind of systematic 
Bible—sometimes almost an unread Bible—of modem Exis¬ 
tentialism, he proposed no less a task than a “repetition” 
of the problem of Being: a repetition in the sense of a radi¬ 
cal renewal, a fetching back from the oblivion of the past 
the problem as the first Greek think ers confronted it. This 
aspect of the book, however, got lost amid the excitement 
over Heidegger’s dramatic and moving descriptions of hu¬ 
man existence—of death, care, anxiety, guilt, and the rest; 
and critics have gone so far as to see in his later writings, 
which lack such topics of human interest, a break and 
change in his thought. This is a mistake, for the singleness 
and continuity of Heidegger’s thinking is such that all his 
later writings can be considered as commentaries and elu¬ 
cidations of what was already in germ in his Being and 
Time . He has never ceased from that single task, the “repe¬ 
tition” of the problem of Being: the standing face to face 
with Being as did the earliest Greeks. And on the very first 
pages of Being and Time he tells us that this task involves 
nothing less than the destruction of the whole history of 
Western ontology—that is, of the way the West has thought 
about Being. 

Why should this be necessary? And, to go back to our 
previous point, how has the tradition itself been responsi¬ 
ble for our contemporary indifference to Being? 

Tn the first place, the word “being” is ambiguous in Eng¬ 
lish. As a participle, it has at once the characteristics of 
verb and noun. As a noun, it is a name for beings, things: 
a table is a being, as is the tree outside the window, etc., 
etc. Anything that is is a being. This we can recognize even 
though we find the fact that it is a being the most empty 
and abstract (and therefore nugatory) characteristic of any 
thing. But in its aspect as a verb “being” signifies the “to-be” 
of thing s, and for this we have no single word in English, 
perhaps because this is even more difficult to conceive. 
Other languages do have a more adequate vocabulary here 
and pair off the two meanings neatly: in Greek, to on (the 
thing which is) and to einai (the Being of the thing which 



is); in Latin, ens and esse; in French, £ St ant and TStre; in 
German, das Seiende and das Sein. (Heidegger’s suggestion 
is that the best accommodation to this usage we can find in 
English would be: beings , where we mean the things that 
are, and Being, where we mean the to-be of whatever is; 
and we shall keep to this suggestion in what follows.) 

Now, it is Heidegger s contention that the whole history 
of Western thought has shown an exclusive preoccupa¬ 
tion with the first member of these pairs, with the thing- 
which-is, and has let the second, the to-be of what is, fall 
into oblivion. Thus that part of philosophy which is sup¬ 
posed to deal with Being is traditionally called ontology— 
the science of the thing-which-is—and not einai-logy, which 
would be the study of the to-be of Being as opposed to 
beings. This observation may look like a piece of scholarly 
pettifoggery, but it is not. What it means is nothing less 
than this: that from the beginning the thought of Western 
man has been bound to things , to objects . The whole history 
of the West takes its fateful course from this fact, and by 
starting from it Heidegger is able—simply out of his single- 
minded preoccupation with Being—to throw new light on 
that history and thereby on the present situation of the 

Once Being has been understood solely in terms of be¬ 
ings, things, it becomes the most general and empty of con¬ 
cepts: “The first object of the understanding,” says St 
Thomas Aquinas, “that which the intellect conceives when 
it conceives of anything.” Thus, a table is an article of furni¬ 
ture; articles of furniture are human artifacts; human arti¬ 
facts are physical things; and then, with the next jump of 
generalization, I can say of this table merely that it is a 
being, a thing. “Being” is the ultimate generalization I can 
make about the thing, and therefore the most abstract term 
I can apply to it, and it gives me no useful information 
about the table at all. Hence the ordinary person’s impa¬ 
tience, which we have noted, on hearing any talk about Be¬ 
ing at all: it is something that does not concern him or any 
of his vital needs. But here again Heidegger overturns the 
traditional applecart: Being is not an empty abstraction but 



something in which all of us are immersed up to our necks, 
and indeed over our heads. We all understand the meaning 
in ordinary life of the word “is,” though we are not called 
upon to give a conceptual explanation of it. Our ordinary 
Ti nman life moves within a preconceptual understanding of 
Being, and it is this everyday understanding of Being in 
which we live, move, and have our Being that Heidegger 
wants to get at as a philosopher. Far from being the most 
remote and abstract of concepts, Being is the most concrete 
and closest of presences; literally, the concern of every man. 
This preconceptual understanding of Being is given to most 
men—I remark to a neighbor, “Today is Monday,” and 
there are no questions asked, and none need be asked, about 
the m eaning of “is”; and without this understanding man 
could not understand anything else . But this does not in the 
least mean that this preconceptual understanding has been 
brought into the light. On the contrary, it remains in the 
dark because for most ordinary purposes we need not ask 
any questions about it. The whole aim of Heidegger s think¬ 
ing is to bring this sense of Being into the light. 


But how is something so banal, so close and yet so hid¬ 
den, to be brought into the light? Here Heidegger makes 
use of an instrument, phenomenology, borrowed from his 
teacher, Edmund Husserl; but in adopting the instrument 
he gives it a diff erent sense and direction from Husserl's. 
The difference is at once a difference of temperament be¬ 
tween the two philosophers and a radical difference be¬ 
tween their philosophies. For Husserl, phenomenology was 
a discipline that attempts to describe what is given to us 
in experience without obscuring preconceptions or hypo¬ 
thetical speculations; his motto was “to the things them¬ 
selves”—rather than to the prefabricated conceptions we 
put in their place. As Husserl saw it, this attempt offered 
the only way out of the impasse into which philosophy had 
run at the end of the nineteenth century when the realists. 



who affirmed the independent existence of the object, and 
the idealists, who affirmed the priority of the subject, had 
settled down into a stalemated war. Instead of making in¬ 
tellectual speculations about the whole of reality, philoso¬ 
phy must turn, Husserl declared, to a pure description of 
what is. In taking this position Husserl became the most 
influential force not only upon Heidegger but upon the 
whole generation of German philosophers who came to ma¬ 
turity about the time of the First World War. 

Heidegger accepts Husserl’s definition of phenomenol¬ 
ogy: he will attempt to describe, he says, and without any 
obscuring preconceptions, what human existence is. But his 
imagination could not let the matter go at this, for he noted 
that the word “phenomenon” comes from the Greek. The 
etymologies of words, particularly of Greek words, are a 
passion with Heidegger; in his pursuit of them he has been 
accused of playing with words, but when one realizes what 
deposits of truth mankind has let slip into its language as 
it evolves, Heideggers perpetual digging at words to get at 
their hidden nuggets of meaning is one of his most exciting 
facets. In the matter of Greek particularly—a dead lan¬ 
guage, whose whole history is now spread out before us— 
we can see how certain truths are embedded in the lan¬ 
guage itself: truths that the Greek race later came to forget 
in its thinking. The word “phenomenon”—a word in ordi¬ 
nary usage, by this time, in all modem European languages 
—means in Greek “that which reveals itself.” Phenomenol¬ 
ogy therefore means for Heidegger the attempt to let the 
thing speak for itself. It will reveal itself to us, he says, only 
if we do not attempt to coerce it into one of our ready¬ 
made conceptual strait jackets. Here we get the be ginning 
of his rejoinder to the Nietzschean view that knowledge is 
in the end an expression of the Will to Power: according to 
Heidegger we do not know the object by conquering and 
subduing it but rather by letting it be what it is and, in 
letting it be, allowing it to reveal itself as what it is. And 
our own human existence too, in its most immediate, inter¬ 
nal nuances, will reveal itself if we have ears to hear it. 

The etymological harvest does not stop with the single 



word “phenomenology.” Heidegger finds around that word 
a whole cluster of etymologies, all of them having an inter¬ 
nal unity of meaning that brings us to the very center of 
his thought. The Greek word phainomenon is connected 
with the word phaos, light, and also with the word 
apophansis, statement or speech. The sequence of ideas is 
thus: revelation-light-language. The light is the light of 
revelation, and language itself is in this light. These may 
look like mere metaphors, but perhaps they are so only for 
us, whose unders tandin g is darkened; for early man, at the 
very dawn of the Greek language, this inner link between 
light and statement (language) was a simple and pro¬ 
found fact, and it is our sophistication and abstractness that 
makes it seem to us “merely” metaphorical. 

This metaphor of light, as we shall see, opens the way to 
Heidegger’s theory of truth, which is for him one of the 
most fateful issues in human history and human thought. 
The etymology of the Greek word for truth, a-letheia, is 
another key to Heidegger s theory: the word means, liter¬ 
ally, un-hiddenness, revelation. Truth occurs when what 
has been hidden is no longer so. If we put this alongside 
the previous ideas of revelation-light-language, then the 
importance of the idea Heidegger is getting at may emerge. 
It is an idea, in fact, that challenges altogether the view 
of “truth” usually held nowadays, as something to be 
ascribed only to statements or propositions: a statement is 
true, for us, when it corresponds to fact. But statements do 
not exist without the minds that comprehend them; and 
truth is therefore, in modem usage, to be found in the mind 
when it has a correct judgment about what is the case. The 
trouble with this view is that it cannot take account of 
other manifestations of truth. For example, we speak of the 
“truth” of a work of art A work of art in which we find 
truth may actually have in it no propositions that are true 
in this literal sense. The truth of the work of art is in its 
being a revelation, but that revelation do^s not consist in 
a statement or group of statements that are intellectually 
correct. The momentous assertion that Heidegger makes is 
that truth does not reside primarily in the intellect, but 



that, on the contrary, intellectual truth is in fact a derivative 
of a more basic sense of truth. 

What this more basic sense of truth is, we shall deal with 
fully in a moment. We must point out, however, before we 
do so, that the question of truth arose as soon as we be¬ 
gan to outline the Heideggerian view of human existence. 
Critics have usually got at Heidegger s thought by a more 
sensational route. The Italian commentator Ruggieri, for 
example, describes Existentialism with colorful superficial¬ 
ity as “philosophy done in the style of a thriller or crime 
novel”—no doubt because it scandalizes the academic phi¬ 
losopher to hear talk about such urgent human matters as 
death, care, anxiety, and the like. Heidegger does discuss 
these questions; but before we can deal with his attitude 
to them we must understand his view of man as a being 
who is situated in a certain relation to truth. Indeed, what 
man becomes—in his history as well as his thinking—turns 
upon the decision he makes as to what truth is. Critics who 
find sensationalism in Heidegger find it because that is what 
they are looking for. 

It is by harking back to the primeval meaning of truth 
as it became embedded in the Greek language, that Hei¬ 
degger takes his theory, in a single leap, beyond the bound¬ 
aries of Husserhan phenomenology. Husserl was still rooted 
in the point of view of Descartes, which is the prevailing 
view of the modem epoch in philosophy, while the whole 
meaning of Heidegger s thought is as an effort to overcome 

By doubting all things Descartes arrived at a single cer¬ 
tainty; the existence of his own consciousness—the famous 
Cogito , ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” This is the 
point at which modem philosophy, and with it the modem 
epoch, begins: man is locked up in his own ego. Outside 
him is the doubtful world of things, which his science has 
now taught him are really not the least like their familiar 
appearances. Descartes got the external world back through 
a belief in God, who in His goodness would not deceive 
us into believing that this external world existed if it really 
did not. But the ghost of subjectivism (and solipsism too) 



is there and haunts the whole of modem philosophy. David 
Hume, in a moment of acute skepticism, felt panicky in 
the solitude of his study and had to go out and join his 
friends in the billiard room in order to be reassured that 
the external world was really there. And Leibniz expressed 
the whole thing in a powerful image when he said of his 
monads, the ultimate substances of the world, that they 
had no windows—i.e., did not communicate with each 

And for Descartes, though he might allow himself mo¬ 
ments of doubting the external world, the fact is that the 
existence of things took priority when it came to under¬ 
standing the Being of man. What are external things? 
Bodies, extended substances. In contrast the ego, the I, is 
an immaterial substance, a thinking substance. And just as 
various qualities—color, shape, and so on—“inhere” in a 
physical substance, so what we call psychic states—moods 
or thoughts—“inhere” in a soul substance. Though man 
and nature are irremediably split off from each other, se¬ 
cretly what takes place is that the Being of man is always 
understood in analogy to physical substances. While mod¬ 
em thought has split off man from nature, it has tried never¬ 
theless to understand man in terms of physical realities. 

Heidegger destroys the Cartesian picture at one blow: 
what characterizes man essentially, he says, is that he is 
Being-in-the-world. Leibniz had said that the monad has 
no windows; and Heideggers reply is that man does not 
look out upon an external world through windows, from 
the isolation of his ego: he is already out-of-doors. He is in 
the world because, existing, he is involved in it totally. Ex¬ 
istence itself, according to Heidegger, means to stand 
outside oneself, to be beyond oneself. My Being is not 
something that takes place inside my skin (or inside an im¬ 
material substance inside that skin); my Being, rather, is 
spread over a field or region which is the world of its care 
and concern. Heideggers theory of man (and of Being) 
might be called the Field Theory of Man (or the Field 
Theory of Being) in analogy with Einstein’s Field Theory 
of Matter, provided we take this purely as an analogy; for 

218 irrational man 

Heidegger would hold it a spurious and inauthentic way 
to philosophize to derive one’s philosophic conclusions from 
the highly abstract theories of physics. But in the way that 
Einstein took matter to be a field (a magnetic field, say) 
—in opposition to the Newtonian conception of a body as 
existing inside its surface boundaries—so Heidegger takes 
man to be a field or region of Being. Think of a magnetic 
field without the solid body of the magnet at its center; 
man’s Being is such a field, but there is no soul substance 
or ego substance at the center from which that field 

Heidegger calls this field of Being Dasein . Dasein (which, 
in German, means literally Being-there) is his name for 
man. One of the most remarkable things about Heidegger’s 
description of human existence is that it is made without 
his using the term “man” at all! He thereby avoids the as¬ 
sumption that we are dealing with a definite object with 
a fixed nature—that we already know, in short, what man is. 
His analysis of existence also takes place without the use 
of the word “consciousness,” for this word threatens to 
bring us back into the Cartesian dualism. That Heidegger 
can say everything he wants to say about human existence 
without using either “man” or “consciousness” means that 
the gulf between subject and object, or between mind and 
body, that has been dug by modem philosophy need not 
exist if we do not make it. Far from being arbitrary, his 
terminology is extremely deliberate and shrewd. 

Now, there is nothing at all remote or abstract about 
this idea of man, or Dasein, as a field. It checks with our 
everyday observation in the case of the child who has just 
learned to respond to his own name. He comes promptly 
enough at being called by name; but if asked to point out 
the person to whom the name belongs, he is just as likely 
to point to Mommy or Daddy as to himself—to the frustra¬ 
tion of both eager parents. Some months later, asked the 
same question, the child will point to himself. But before 
he has reached that stage, he has heard his name as nam¬ 
ing a field or region of Being with which he is concerned, 
and to which he responds, whether the call is to come to 



food, to mother, or whatever. And the child is right. His 
name is not the name of an existence that takes place 
within the envelope of his skin: that is merely the awfully 
abstract social convention that has imposed itself not 
only on his parents but on the history of philosophy. The 
basic meaning the child’s name has for him does not dis¬ 
appear as he grows older; it only becomes covered over by 
the more abstract social convention. He secretly hears his 
own name called whenever he hears any region of Being 
named with which he is vitally involved. 

It takes a little time to get used to this Heideggerian 
notion of a field, but once familiar it is at once inevitable 
and natural and alters our whole way of looking at the hu¬ 
man person. To be sure, this existence is always mine; it 
is not an impersonal fact, as the existence of a table is 
merely to be an individual case of the class table. Never¬ 
theless, the mine-ness of my existence does not consist in 
the fact that there is an I-substance at the center of my 
field, but rather in that this mine-ness permeates the whole 
field of my Being. 

Heidegger has with this notion planted both feet solidly 
in that banal, public, everyday world of our experience. 
Philosophers in the past have construed existence from a 
much different point of view—that of a privileged mode of 
experience, the solitude of reflection. The thought of a Des¬ 
cartes or Hume smells of this solitude, of the private cham¬ 
ber or study in which a man may toy with the doubt of an 
external world. In the daylight of everyday experience such 
doubts become unreal; they do not need to be refuted, they 
simply fade away, for they do not apply to the existence 
that we actually live. 

In this everyday prephilosophical world in which we 
live, in which even Descartes and Hume lived though they 
forgot it, none of us is a private Self confronting a world 
of external objects. None of us is yet even a Self. We are 
each simply one among many; a name among the names 
of our schoolfellows, our fellow citizens, our community. 
This everyday public quality of our existence Heidegger 
calls "the One.” The One is the impersonal and public 



creature whom each of us is even before he is an I, a real 
I. One has such-and-such a position in life, one is expected 
to behave in such-and-such a manner, one does this, one 
does not do that, etc., etc. We exist thus in a state of 
“fallen-ness” (VerfaMenheit), according to Heidegger, in 
the sense that we are as yet below the level of existence 
to which it is possible for us to rise. So long as we remain 
in the womb of this externalized and public existence, we 
are spared the terror and the dignity of becoming a Self. 
But, as happened to Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s story, such 
things as death and anxiety intrude upon this fallen state, 
destroy our sheltered position of simply being one among 
many, and reveal to us our own existence as fearfully and 
irremediably our own. Because it is less fearful to be “the 
One” than to be a Self, the modem world has wonderfully 
multiplied all the devices of self-evasion. 

Whether it be fallen or risen, inauthentic or authentic, 
counterfeit copy or genuine original, human existence is 
marked by three general traits: (1) mood or feeling; 
(2) understanding; (3) speech. Heidegger calls these 
existentudia and intends them as basic categories of exist¬ 
ence. As categories they seem at first glance rather strange, 
for other philosophers’ categories—quantity, quality, space, 
time, etc.—are very different. These latter, which the tradi¬ 
tion from Aristotle onward makes the fundamental cate¬ 
gories of Being, are all categories of physical objects. But 
human existence cannot be understood as a thing , and 
therefore cannot be characterized by categories that are 
derived from things. This does not mean, however, that 
Heidegger intends his three existentialia to refer to internal 
states of some purely mental entity or soul substance. 
Rather, they must be understood in terms of Heidegger’s 
view of Dasein, human existence, as a field. 

(1) Mood. What is a mood really? We tend to think of 
it as an internal state. But when we do so, we are still 
th inking of it as inhering in some nuclear substance of our¬ 
selves, a soul or ego, as the color of a table inheres in the 
table. We do not actually have our moods in this way. 
Strictly speaking, we do not “have” them at all as we might 



Tiave” articles of furniture stored away in some interior 
attic. The mood, rather, penetrates the whole field of Being 
that we are. The German word for mood, Stimmung , has 
the root sense of being attuned, and in a mood our whole 
Being is attuned in a certain way. We are a certain joy, 
sadness, dread. It leavens and permeates the whole of our 

Moreover, in every mood or feeling I suddenly find my¬ 
self here and now within my situation, within my world. 
Dasein, as we have seen, means to be there—or perhaps, as 
we might more commonly say in English, to be here and 
now— and in every mood I come to myself here and now 
in a certain way. Whether the mood be slight, almost im¬ 
palpable, or a volcanic eruption, what always reveals itself 
if I give it heed is my own Being-there in its world in a 
certain way. The fundamental mood, according to Heideg¬ 
ger, is anxiety (Angst); he does not choose this as primary 
out of any morbidity of temperament, however, but simply 
because in anxiety this here-and-now of our existence 
arises before us in all its precarious and porous contingency. 

Notice that Heidegger is talking about moods or feelings 
as modes of Being. He is propounding not psychology but 
ontology, but in so doing he is also recasting our whole 
understanding of psychological matters. Man is illuminated 
by letting Being reveal itself, and not vice versa. The whole 
approach is decidedly not anthropocentric. 

(2) Understanding . The understanding Heidegger refers 
to here is not abstract or theoretical; it is the understanding 
of Being in which our existence is rooted, and without 
which we could not make propositions or theories that can 
nlgrim to be “true.” As such it lies underneath and at the 
basis of our ordinary conceptual understanding. We open 
our eyes in the morning, and the world opens before us. 
We do not reflect enough on what happens in this simple 
act of seeing-namely, that the world opens around us as 
we see. This open-ness, or standing open, of the world 
must always be given, even for the most humble human 
existent, whose mind might be quite devoid of ideas and 
who mig ht claim no specifically intellectual understa nd ing 



of the world at all. Without this open-ness he could not 
exist, for to exist means to stand beyond himself in a world 
that opens before him. In this world that lies before him, 
open beneath the light, things lie unconcealed (also con¬ 
cealed); but unconcealedness, or un-hiddenness, for Hei¬ 
degger, is truth; and therefore so far as man exists, he exists 
“in the truth.” (At the same time, because he is finite, he 
must always exist “in untruth”) Truth and Being are thus 
inseparable, given always together, in the simple sense 
that a world with things in it opens up around man the 
moment he exists. Most of the time, however, man does not 
let himself see what really happens in seeing. 

Here is an example: An intellectual approaches to tell 
me a new “theory” of his. The theory may be about a new 
book, another person, or some new twist in psychoanalysis 
—it does not matter. (Suppose, to make our illustration 
more concrete at least for some readers, that this intellec¬ 
tual is one of that peculiarly traditionless, deracinated, and 
therefore cerebral breed, the New York intellectual.) As 
soon as I hear his theory, I know it to be false. Challenged 
to give arguments against it, I may stumble inarticulately; 
in some cases, indeed, I find it not worth while to give a 
rebuttal, for the ideas ring false the moment they strike my 
ear. Some dumb inarticulated understanding, some sense of 
truth planted, as it were, in the marrow of my bones, makes 
me know that what I am hearing is not true. Whence comes 
this understanding? It is the understanding that I have by 
virtue of being rooted in existence. It is the kind of under¬ 
standing we all have when confronted with ideas that we 
know to be false even though it may take us a long time 
to articulate reasons for rejecting them. If we did not have 
this understanding, we could never utter any propositions 
as true or false. We become rootless intellectually to the 
degree that we lose our hold upon this primary form of 
understanding, which is there in the act of opening our 
eyes upon the world. 

(3) Speech. Language, for Heidegger, is not primarily 
a system of sounds or of marks on paper symbolizing those 
sounds. Sounds and marks upon paper can become lan- 



guage only because man, insofar as he exists, stands within 
language. This looks very paradoxical; but, as with the rest 
of Heidegger, to understand what he means we have to 
cast off our usual habits of thought and let ourselves see 
what the thing is—i.e., let the thing itself be seen rather 
than riding roughshod over it with ready-made conceptions. 

Two people are talking together. They understand each 
other, and they fall silent—a long silence. This silence is 
language; it may speak more eloquently than any words. 
In their mood they are attuned to each other; they may 
even reach down into that understanding which, as we have 
seen above, lies below the level of articulation. The three- 
mood, understanding, and speech (a speech here that is 
silence)—thus interweave and are one. This significant, 
speaking silence shows us that sounds or marks do not con¬ 
stitute the essence of language. Nor is this silence merely 
a gap in our chatter; it is, rather, the primordial attune- 
ment of one existent to another, out of which all language 
—as sounds, marks, and counters—comes. It is only because 
man is capable of such silence that he is capable of authen¬ 
tic speech. If he ceases to be rooted in that silence all his 
talk becomes chatter. 

This is an approach to language very different from that 
of the various forms of semanticism now in vogue in this 
country and in England. Where the semantieists deal with 
words as si gns or counters, and sometimes systems of such 
signs as logical calculi, Heidegger points rather to the 
existential background out of which those signs emerge. 
The semanticist I. A. Richards once presented a theory of 
poetry in which the poet became a manipulator of verbal 
signs—a sort of emotional engineer. But all semantical in¬ 
terpretations of language, however useful they may be, are 
doomed at the start to be incomplete because they do not 
get at the roots of language in human existence. Take 
Richards 9 series of books, Basic English > Basic Germany etc., 
which attempt through pictures and words to instruct the 
pupil in a language he knows nothing of: On the first page 
of the Basic English text I find a picture (supposed to be 
of a man) pointing to himself and saying, “I am a man,” 



and another of a woman and a child declaring what they 
are. Suppose I knew no English altogether and picked up 
the book; I might very well think “I am a man” meant "I 
am a male ballet dancer,” for that is what the man in the 
little abstract drawing looks like. The point may appear 
frivolous, but it is not. Such misunderstandings are avoided 
only because there is an unexpressed context of mutual un¬ 
derstanding within which the instructor and pupil in the 
language communicate. Such a context of understanding is 
not expressed because all expression takes place within it. 
The instructor may lengthen his preamble to the linguistic 
manual, in the hope of eliminating such misund ers tandin gs, 
but at whatever point he begins there must be, behind and 
around his words, this context of mutual understanding. 

In what does this unexpressed context of unders tandin g 
consist? As we have seen above, in the understanding in 
which our existence itself is rooted. We have spoken earlier 
of Heidegger’s Field Theory of Being; we might just as well 
call it a contextual theory of Being. Being is the context 
in which all beings come to light—and this means those 
beings as well that are sounds or marks on paper. Because 
man stands in this context, this open space of Being, he 
may communicate with other men. Men exist “within 
language” prior to their uttering sounds because they exist 
within a mutual context of understanding, which in the end 
is nothing but Being itself. 

It is a pity that Heidegger s view of language has not 
become known in this country. It might have spared us 
many fruitless and self-defeating forays in literary criticism, 
in which the effort has been to pick poems apart into the 
words that make them up. And it might illuminate discus¬ 
sions by our logicians of formalized languages and logics, 
by pointing out that every attempt at formalization must 
presuppose a context of language within which understand¬ 
ing is already taking place. 


22 $ 


Men die. This happens every day in the world. Death is 
a public event in the world, of which we take notice in 
obituaries; we pay the necessary social obsequies and are 
sometimes deeply touched emotionally. But so long as 
death remains a fact outside ourselves, we have not yet 
passed from the proposition "Men die” to the proposition 
"I am to die.” The realization of the latter brings with it 
the shattering experience of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich. 

Heidegger s analysis of death—one of the most powerful 
and celebrated passages in Being and Time —reveals in 
thought the truth that the artist Tolstoy had revealed in his 
story. (Truth in both cases has to be understood basically 
as revelation.) The authentic meaning of death—“I am to 
die”—is not as an external and public fact within the world, 
but as an internal possibility of my own Being. Nor is it a 
possibility like a point at the end of a road, which I will in 
time reach. So long as I think in this way, I still hold death 
at a distance outside myself. The point is that I may die at 
any moment, and therefore death is my possibility now. It 
is like a precipice at my feet. It is also the most extreme 
and absolute of my possibilities: extreme, because it is the 
possibility of not being and hence cuts off all other possibili¬ 
ties; absolute, because man can surmount all other heart¬ 
breaks, even the deaths of those he loves, but his own death 
puts an end to him. Hence, death is the most personal and 
intimate of possibilities, since it is what I must suffer for 
myself: nobody else can die for me. 

Only by taking my death into myself, according to 
Heidegger, does an authentic existence become possible for 
me. Touched by this interior angel of death, I cease to be 
the impersonal and social One among many, as Ivan Ilyich 
was, and I am free to become myself. Though terrifying, 
the taking of death into ourselves is also liberating: It frees 
us from servitude to the petty cares that threaten to engulf 
our daily life and thereby opens us to the essential projects 
by which we can make our lives personally and significantly 

2 , 2,6 


our own. Heidegger calls this the condition of “freedom- 
toward-death” or “resoluteness.” 

The acceptance of death, as possible here and now, dis¬ 
closes the radical finitude of our existence. More than any 
philosopher before him—more even than Kant, from whom 
he derived a good deal in this respect—Heidegger has ex¬ 
plored the depths of human finitude. We tend to think of 
finitude principally in connection with physical objects: ob¬ 
jects are finite because they are contained within definite 
spatial boundaries. They extend so far and no farther. The 
essential finitude of man, however, is experienced not at his 
boundaries but, so to speak, at the very center of his Being. 
He is finite because his Being is penetrated by non-Being. 
At first glance, this looks utterly paradoxical; and our rea¬ 
son, basing itself rigidly upon the law of contradiction, can¬ 
not comprehend it. But we ourselves, as existing beings, 
comprehend it all too well when we are plunged into the 
mood of anxiety, when the void of non-Being opens up 
within our own Being. 

Anxiety is not fear, being afraid of this or that definite 
object, but the uncanny feeling of being afraid of nothing 
at all. It is precisely Nothingness that makes itself present 
and felt as the object of our dread. The first time this fun¬ 
damental human experience was described was by Kierke¬ 
gaard in his Concept of Dread > but there it was done only 
briefly, in passing; Heidegger has greatly expanded and 
deepened Kierkegaards insight. Significantly enough, the 
dread described by Kierkegaard was in connection with the 
theological problem of Original Sin, the sin that comes 
down to all human beings from the first sin of Adam. Be¬ 
fore Adam chose to bite the apple, Kierkegaard says, there 
opened in him a yawning abyss; he saw the possibility of 
his own freedom in the committing of a future act against 
the background of Nothingness. This Nothingness is at once 
fascinating and dreadful. In Heidegger Nothingness is a 
presence within our own Being, always there, in the inner 
quaking that goes on beneath the calm surface of our pre¬ 
occupation with things. Anxiety before Nothingness has 
many modalities and guises: now trembling and creative. 



now panicky and destructive; but always it is as inseparable 
from ourselves as our own breathing because anxiety is our 
existence itself in its radical insecurity. In anxiety we both 
are and are not, at one and the same time, and this is our 
dread. Our finitude is such that positive and negative inter¬ 
penetrate our whole existence. 

That man is finite is not merely a psychological charac¬ 
teristic of him personally or his species. Nor is he finite 
merely because his number of allotted years on this earth is 
limited. He is finite because the “not”—negation—penetrates 
the very core of his existence. And whence is this “not” de¬ 
rived? From Being itself. Man is finite because he lives and 
moves within a finite understanding of Being . This means, 
among other thing s, that human truth too is always pene¬ 
trated by untruth. And here we have gone as far as possible 
from Hegel and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, 
who had hoped to enclose all truth in a system. 



Our finitude discloses itself essentially in time. In ex¬ 
isting, to take the word etymologically, we stand outside 
ourselves at once open to Being and in the open clearing of 
Being; and this happens temporally as well as spatially. 
Man, Heidegger says, is a creature of distance: he is per¬ 
petually beyond himself, his existence at every moment 
opening out toward the future. The future is the not-yet, 
and the past is the no-longer; and these two negatives—the 
not-yet and the no-longer—penetrate his existence. They are 
his finitude in its temporal manifestation. 

We really know time, says Heidegger, because we know 
we are going to die. Without this passionate realization of 
our mortality, time would be simply a movement of the 
clock that we watch passively, calculating its advance—a 
movement devoid of human meaning. Man is not, strictly 
speaking, in time as a body is immersed in a river that 
rushes by. Rather, time is in him; his existence is temporal 
through and through, from the inside out. His moods, his 

22 8 


care and concern, his anxiety, guilt, and conscience—all are 
saturated with time. Everything that makes up human ex¬ 
istence has to be understood in the light of man’s temporal¬ 
ity: of the not-yet, the no-longer, the here-and-now. 

These three tenses of time—future, past, and present— 
Heidegger calls ekstasies , in the literal sense of the Greek 
ek-stasis, a standing outside and beyond oneself. Philoso¬ 
phers before Heidegger had constructed time as a series of 
“nows”—present moments—following each other like points 
upon a line. This is what we call clock time—time as meas¬ 
ured by chronometers and calendars. But in order to con¬ 
struct time as a sequence of “nows” we have to be able, 
Heidegger says, to understand what “now* means; and to 
do this we have to understand it as the moment dividing 
past and future—that is, we have to understand past and 
future together in order to understand the present. Hence, 
every attempt to interpret time as a sequence of present mo¬ 
ments, sliding away into the past, presupposes that man al¬ 
ready stands beyond himself in one of the three ek-stases 
of time. His existence is thus a field spread out over time 
as it is over space; his temporality is a basic fact of this 
existence, one that underlies all his chronometrical meas¬ 
urements of time. Clocks are useful to man only because 
his existence is rooted in a prior kind of temporality. 

Heidegger s theory of time is novel, in that, unlike earlier 
philosophers with their “nows,” he gives priority to the fu¬ 
ture tense. The future, according to him 3 is primary because 
it is the region toward which man projects and in which he 
defines his own being. “Man never is, but always is to be,* 
to alter slightly the famous line of Pope. Man looks ever 
forward, toward the open region of the future, and in so 
looking he takes upon himself the burden of the past (or 
of what out of the past he selects as his inheritance) and 
thereby orients himself in a certain way to his present and 
actual situation in life. 

Here time reveals itself for Heidegger as being essentially 
historical. We are not bom at some moment in general, but 
at that particular moment in that particular milieu and in 
entering the world we also enter, however humbly, into its 



historical destiny. The more concretely and humanly we 
grasp the temporal roots of human existence, the more 
clearly we see that this existence is in and of itself, through 
and thro ugh, historical. As temporality is to time, so is his¬ 
toricity to history; as we make clocks to measure time be¬ 
cause our being is essentially temporal, so man writes histo¬ 
ries or makes history by his actions because his very being is 
historical. Heidegger here corrects the historidsm of think¬ 
ers like Hegel or Marx, to whom man is an historical crea¬ 
ture because he takes part in the vast historical process of 
the world. World history, for Hegel and Marx, is like a 
mighty river that carries individuals and nations in its flow. 
But this meaning of history, says Heidegger, really derives 
from the more basic sense in which man is temporal simply 
through being a creature whose very existence stands tem¬ 
porally open. Man is an historical creature, true; but not 
merely because he wears such-and-such clothes at a given 
period, has such-and-such “historical” customs, or is deci¬ 
sively shaped by the class conflicts of his time. All these 
things derive their significance from a more basic fact: 
namely, that man is the being who, however dimly and half - 
consciously, always understands, and must understand, his 
own being historically. 

And a thinker like Heidegger? He too—and indeed he 
more than all men, if his thought is to be rooted and not 
rootless—has to understand himself historically. He has to 
see his own tho ught as an historical undertaking, an act 
that projects a certain future and scrupulously relates itself 
to the whole tradition in which his thinking takes place. 
More t ha n any other contemporary thinker Heidegger seeks 
to relate his thought to the history of Western thought and 
not in an external and merely scholarly sense, but as an 
event t rans piring within that history. Therein his thinking 
shows itself to be more essentially historical than the 
thought of any form a l historian of philosophy. The final 
s ummat ion of his philosophy has in fact to be given now in 
terms of the perspective in which it places the whole history 



of Western thought—and more than thought, the history of 
the very Being of the West. 

This perspective is outlined for us most sharply in two 
brief but extremely significant essays, Plato's Theory of 
Truth (1942) and On the Nature of Truth (1943), and 
especially in the first of these. Here we come back inevitably 
to the problem of truth, for that is central to Heidegger’s 
philosophy, as neither time, history, care, anxiety, death, 
nor any of the other dramatic matters that have caught the 
attention of critics are. The decision about truth is crucial 
for Heidegger because it is the decision about the meaning 
of Being, and hence the pivot on which the history of men 
and of whole civilizations turns. 

The history of Being (for the West), Heidegger says, be¬ 
gins with the fall of Being. In this respect, his view is paral¬ 
lel with the Biblical view which takes A dam’ s fall to be the 
be g i nnin g of all human history. The fall of Being, for Hei¬ 
degger, occurred when the Greek thinkers detached things 
as clear and distinct forms from their encompassing back¬ 
ground, in order that they might reckon clearly with them. 
The terms used in Gestalt psychology—figure and gro und— 
may be helpful here: By detaching the figure from the 
ground the object could be made to emerge into the day¬ 
light of human consciousness; but the sense of the ground, 
the environing background, could also be lost. The figure 
comes into sharper focus, that is, but the ground recedes, 
becomes invisible, is forgotten. The Greeks detached beings 
from the vast environing ground of Being. This act of de¬ 
tachment was accompanied by a momentous shift in the 
meaning of truth for the Greeks, a shift which Heidegger 
pinpoints as taking place in a single passage in Plato’s Re¬ 
public, the celebrated allegory of the cave. The quality of 
a-letheia, un~hiddenness, had been considered the mark of 
truth; but with Plato in that passage truth came to be de¬ 
fined, rather, as the correctness of an intellectual judgment. 
Truth henceforth resided in the human intellect insofar as 
that intellect judged truly about things. By adopting this 
meaning of truth as the primary and essential one, the 


Greeks were able to develop science, the unique and dis¬ 
tinguishing characteristic of Western civilization. 

None of the Oriental civilizations had effected a simi¬ 
lar detachment of beings from Being. Though Heidegger 
makes no reference to these Oriental civilizations—he always 
takes his data from the West, even while trying to think 
beyond it—we, in placing his thought, cannot fail to refer 
to them. In neither India nor China, nor in the philosophies 
that these civilizations produced, was truth located in the 
intellect. On the contrary, the Indian and Chinese sages in¬ 
sisted on the very opposite: namely, that man does not at¬ 
tain to truth so long as he remains locked up in his intellect; 
a man who located his truth in the mind would have struck 
these sages not merely as mistaken, but as a human psy¬ 
chological aberration. The great historical parting of the 
ways between Western and Eastern man came about be¬ 
cause each made a different decision as to what truth is. 

(This should not be interpreted, however—as some of our 
more glib Orientalizers do interpret it—in any superficial 
sense as an error into which the West strayed, one which 
might have been corrected by the exercise of a little more 
wisdom. History has to be seen as somewhat more fateful 
than that. The project—to use the word in Heidegger s sense 
—of the Greeks of defining truth in a certain way was essen¬ 
tially finite like all human projects, and therefore carried 
within itself its own negative. We cannot define ourselves 
without negating the alternatives that we do not become. If 
the Greeks had not detached objects from their enveloping 
ground of Being, what we know as the Western intellect 
would not have come into existence. The lack of this intel¬ 
lect is the negative, the shadow, in the historical project of 
the Oriental civilizations. Every light has its shadow.) 

The Greeks, however, did not themselves become subjec¬ 
tivists in the modem sense. They philosophized in the 
market place, in the open air, and they were still close 
enough to Being, which their thinking had just begun to 
forget. It remained for modem science, at the be ginnin g of 
our epoch, to effect a sharper division between man and 
nature; and the thought of Descartes is the expression of 



this cleavage. The object which has been detached from 
the enveloping ground of Being can be measured and cal¬ 
culated, but the essence of this object—the thing-in-itself— 
becomes more and more remote from man. The subject be¬ 
comes conscious of himself as cut off from the object even 
as his power to manipulate the object mounts almost un¬ 
believably. The word “object” is itself instructive here: it 
is from the Latin ob-jectum 9 that which is thrown or put 
before—hence, an obstacle that has to be conquered, ma¬ 
nipulated, transformed. Man masters beings, but Being—the 
open region in which both subject and object stand out and 
are thus not divided—is forgotten. There is left to man noth¬ 
ing but his Will to Power over objects; and Heidegger is 
right when he says that Nietzsche is in this respect the cul¬ 
mination of Western metaphysics, which metaphysics in 
turn culminates in the situation of the world today where 
power rides supreme. 

Heidegger here is talking about one of the most pervasive 
attitudes in the world today, one which shows itself in our 
fantastic passion for the organization of life in every area. 
The businessman who flies to the country for a week-end, 
is whisked off to golf, tennis, sailing, entertains his guests 
successfully, all on split-second schedule, and at the end of 
the week-end flies back to the city, but without once having 
had the occasion or the desire to lose himself walking down 
a country lane—such a man, we say, is marvelously organ¬ 
ized and really knows how to manage things. And, to be 
sure, he does show an admirable mastery over things; over 
beings but not Being, with which he never comes in confect. 
To lose oneself walking down a country lane is, literally, to 
lose the self that is split off from nature: to enter the region 
of Being where subject and object no longer confront each 
other in murderous division. The relation of the poet to Be¬ 
ing is not the relation of the busy man of power to beings. 
The latter goes to the country and returns, but without ever 
really being there. The man of today, technological man, 
is the final descendant of Cartesian man, but without Des¬ 
cartes’ passion for clear and distinct ideas. As Descartes, 
locked up in his own luminous ego, confronted a world of 



material objects as thoroughly alien and perhaps unknow¬ 
able, so technological man faces the objects in his world 
with no need or capacity for intimacy with them beyond 
the knowledge of what button has to be pressed in order 
to control their working. 

And it should also be clear by now what Heidegger’s 
final answer to Nietzsche is: it is that Western man has got 
to fetch Being back from the oblivion into which it has 
fallen. Man must learn to let Being be, instead of twisting 
and dislocating it to make it yield up answers to our need 
for power. A simple example of such twisting occurs in the 
case of art. Nietzsche, in his compulsion to erect a system, 
had included even the artist under the Will to Power: Art 
is the discharge of the artist’s vitality and power, he said, 
and the experience of great art in turn enhances this vitality 
and power in us. Andr6 Malraux in his long essay on the 
psychology and history of art. The Voices of Silence, has 
given recently the most eloquent expression to this Nie- 
tzschean position. Malraux’s book abounds in metaphors of 
struggle, conquest, victory; the world’s art is seen as an im¬ 
aginary museum of images that represents, in perfect Nie- 
tzschean style, man’s victory over Nothingness. Malraux, a 
supremely typical figure of the nervousness of our times, is 
consumed by the Nietzschean demon of the Will to Power. 
But do all of his military metaphors show us the other side 
of art? Do they convey to us that the artist, as well as the 
spectator, must submit patiently and passively to the artis¬ 
tic process, that he must lie in wait for the image to produce 
itself; that he produces false notes as soon as he tries to 
force anything; that, in short, he must let the truth of his 
art happen to him? All of these points are part of what 
Heidegger means by our letting Being be. Letting it be, 
the artist lets it speak to him and through him; and so too 
the thinker must let it be thought. 

In thus counseling passivity as against activity—the words 
are not too precise, but they will do for the moment—Hei¬ 
degger seems to be directing us once more toward the 
Orient. When he repeats over and over that the tradition 
of the West begins with the forgetting of Being, that this 

•Manq }natiQ atp SunpXuB uiojj ^uaiagip Aioa Smqpnios 
aq S}pisai }BqAL }nq ‘jpsg SmzqB}natio qSnoiq} 9q 
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ni9)S9^ jj *sn xnog a}oniai oo; qgs si }i :a\ 9 i 3 s9iqdosopqd 
rna^sBg; qoiqM jo }no aouaiiadxa aqj puB^siapnn aAV }Btp 
ams aq naAa }0tniB0 aAV—paia^n qiq/a Xaq} qoiqM nr spioAV 
aqj raojq }iBdB Aqdosopqd m^s’j 10 qaaiQ pnB}Siapim }on 
-treo aAV }Btp XpnupunqB saAoid laSSapiajj pnB—saSBnSnBj 
tua^SBa aqj jo ^pioggrp aq} tnoij apisy -os op o} }q§u Ajq 
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aq} mq}iA\ Apgqosax sXb}s ‘uaas 9ABq 9AV sb ‘laSSapiajj ioj 
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sjaSSapiajj o} Smq} }saiBau aq} }Bq} qoiq} o} airquaA naAa i 

o aou9}six9-uou jo laqjo aq} uo pnB 
‘aana}sixa jo }gauaq aq} aABq q/a pireq auo aq} no ‘aiojaiaqj, 


asn o} 9|qu axe o/a ‘saaBds A}draa am Xaqj asnBoaq pny 
‘asnoq b jo squAV aqj nr }no }tio aiB SMoprriAV pnB sjooq 
• spssaA sb maq} asn o} 

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‘aABn ano m 9}iun saqods X}nqx 

:as}-OB r [ 

s^Bg ^rasqiqrn, jo Aid pazqBpnBOS S}i qjtAV siqj xnoij sjiooai 
pnim niajsa^ aq} aiaqAV ‘Smaq-uou ptre Sniag jo X}jiB}nani 
-ajdnioa XiBssaoan aq} Agnjiaaqo s}daooB nisiOBX asanrqQ 
pnB SpBq soisXqdBjam }siqppng }nq ‘Smag-uon jo am}Bn 
aq} }no }qSnoq} iaAan pBq ‘laSSapiajj aiojaq ‘soisXqdB}aui 
niajsa^ qsBg aqj jo }Bq} pnB ;q§noq} siaSSapiajj naaAV} 
-aq aonapnodsauoo jo s}uiod }onpsip aiB aiaqj ‘XpiiB}ia3 
•}SBg aq} ni asoiB }Bq} pnppiBui jo nopBzqiAp }Bai§ iaq}0 
aq} jo quiq} o} paoioj si ano ‘SuBids }i qoiqAV nioij aomos 
aq} 0} }i pnoXaq oS 0} gopjurq} mo ni mou aABq aAV }Bq} 
pnB f pna puap b ni nopa^dnioo s}i 0} amoo SBq noprpBJ} 





“But what is Being?” I imagine the reader asking in per¬ 
plexity, now that I have given at least the outlines of Hei¬ 
degger s thought. “We still haven’t been told about that.” 
We like the compact formulae that tell us clearly what a 
thing is. A triangle is a plane figure bounded by three 
straight lines—well then, we know what a triangle is. We 
want a concept to go by, and a concept is a representation, 
or picture, of the thing. But Being, unlike a triangle, is 
something of which we can have no mental picture or rep¬ 
resentation. We reach it by a kind of thought other than 
conceptual reason. “Think” and “thank” are kindred roots, 
and the German word an^denkenr- literally, “to think on”— 
means to remember; hence, for Heidegger, think, thank, 
and remember are kindred notions. Real thinking, thinking 
that is rooted in Being, is at once an act of thanking and 
remembrance. When a dear friend says, in parting, “Think 
of mel” this does not mean “Have a mental picture of me!” 
but: “Let me (even in my absence) be present with you.” 
So too we must think of Being by letting it be present to 
us even though we can have no mental picture of it. Being 
is indeed just this presence, invisible and all-pervasive, 
which cannot be enclosed in any mental concept. To think 
it is to thank it, to remember it with gratitude, for our hu¬ 
man existence is ultimately rooted in it. And if, just because 
we cannot represent it in any mental concept, we choose to 
forget it, then all our human and humanistic enterprises are 
threatened with the void, since our existence itself would 
thereby be tom from its root. 

Heidegger has not told us in so many words what Being 
is; but anyone who has read his text through has from it a 
concrete sense of Being quite different from anything that 
our philosophic tradition has so far brought to light. One 
has, from a book like Being and Time , a sense of man as a 
creature transparent and open to Being in every nerve and 
fiber of his life; and this perhaps is as clear a sense of Being, 
the unutterable, as any thinker in the West has yet given 
us. Indeed, that book is so charged and compact, in its 
analysis of human existence, that the few points from it 
cited above hardly suffice to give more than a sketchy idea 



of its real range and depth. In the years when Heidegger 
was writing it, during the early 1920^ when he was a young 
professor at Marburg, he was thinking at white heat—think¬ 
ing for a whole lifetime, it would seem, for the rest of his 
writings are largely elucidation of this monumental book. 

The most frequent criticism of Heideggerian man is that 
he is a creature of solitude rather than community, that his 
authentic existence is secured in relation to himself alone 
and not essentially to others. This criticism has been made 
by Existentialists like Jaspers, Buber, Berdyaev, Marcel— 
and in a somewhat different form, by Sartre too. Bubers 
criticism (in Between Man and Man) is the most forcefully 
put and, because Buber is enjoying something of a vogue 
now in the United States, is likely to be the most influential 
here. His criticism entirely misses the point, however, that 
Heideggerian man—or the authentic Heideggerian man—is 
related not merely to himself but to Being, and that only 
in virtue of the latter can this creature attain authenticity. 
Buber, the religious humanist, does not really see that Hei¬ 
degger is concerned with Being and so is not constructing 
a philosophical anthropology. Man is for Heidegger merely 
a means of access, a gateway to the problem of Being; and 
such a project of thought is not likely to do justice to all 
the concrete facets of man's existence, psychological and 
social. Heidegger does not philosophize humanly (he calls 
it existentiefly) as do Jaspers and Buber, who are rather 
like lyricists of existence, seeking to awaken authentic exist¬ 
ence in their hearers. Heidegger is a thinker, no more and 
no less; and the project that is his life is an austere and 
somber meditation upon Being. 

Still, although formally speaking Bubers objections are 
beside the point, this old rabbi has wonderful instincts and 
he has sniffed out where the trouble really lies: namely in 
that obscure region where the thinker and the man meet 
and are one. Heidegger seeks only to be a thinker; and as 
such, he towers above men like Jaspers and Buber: to put 
it in blunt American, as thinkers they are not even in the 
same league with Heidegger. But being a thinker (even in 



the exalted sense in which Heidegger is one) is not enough 
for being a man. If thinking could give us back our roots, 
Heidegger s thought would do that, since no thinker has 
ever been so rooted in the everyday; but it clearly does not. 
He has led us back, as has no other thinker, to see what is 
involved in light and vision, but we need to go one step 
farther and see that all light requires fire. After Heidegger, 
we feel the need of a new Kierkegaard to pump back liv¬ 
ing blood into the ontological skeleton of the Heideggerian 

Kierkegaard as against Heidegger—that is the essential 
opposition to which criticism like Buber’s returns us. And 
the opposition turns, as Heidegger would wish it to, on the 
two men’s varying notions of truth: it lying for Kierkegaard 
in the ethical and religious passion of the individual, for 
Heidegger in Being itself, as the open region in which sub¬ 
ject and object can be and therefore can meet, and without 
which there could be neither subject nor object. These two 
notions of truth have not yet been reconciled by existential 
philosophy—that is a task for the future. But must not the 
quest for Being, as the Orient held, be one and the same 
with the individual’s burning thirst for personal salvation? 
Is not thinking itself incomplete until it unites these—or, 
rather, ceases to divide them? Does not the Greek word for 
truth, a-letheia, of which Heidegger makes so much, derive 
after all from the more concrete adjective, alethes—mean¬ 
ing, as applied to the individual, a man who is true, open, 
sincere? Truth comes to be, in short, only with the man 
who is true. 

Heidegger is far closer in spirit to Nietzsche than he is to 
Kierkegaard; and his thinking, though much more in con¬ 
trol, breathes the icy superhuman air of solitude of Zara - 
ikustra . It is no accident that Heidegger finds such an af¬ 
finity with Holderlin—the great poet of a loneliness so 
intense that he too, like Nietzsche, drifted off into schizo¬ 
phrenia. Heidegger acquiesces too calmly in the “death of 
God.” If he has really experienced it, we feel, then his 
thought should be more tormented—or, on the other hand, 
more cheerful, since he has survived that death. Holderlin 



and Nietzsche were the great poets of this death of God; 
Heidegger has not succumbed to their dire fate—perhaps 
because he is not a poet, as Kierkegaard might have put 
it, but only a professor. 

Nevertheless, German professors are marvelous beings. 
Over a century ago there was a German professor named 
Hegel whose thought might have looked to an ordinary ob¬ 
server like the veriest academic woolgathering, of no in¬ 
terest to anyone except other professional woolgatherers. 
And yet, Hegel's thought went far and wide outside the 
walls of the Academy and in the end begot Marx and Com¬ 
munism. Heidegger may prove equally influential. Already 
he is recasting our whole perspective on Western history; 
the history textbooks of the future may be built on his ideas 
of historicity, as in the last few generations they were built 
on Hegel's. And Finitism is already beginning to triumph 
in modem mathematics. In bringing non-Being, or Noth¬ 
ingness, into thought, Heidegger points up the possibility 
that the West may at long last face the problem of nihilism 
without either scandalized rhetoric or complacent self- 
deception. And his thought has already touched the world 
outside the Academy, since through Sartre he was the prime 
mover in French Existentialism. Although in this case, as 
we shall see, the child did not remain very true to its parent. 


Chapter Ten 

We may as well begin with Sartre in a moment of hero¬ 
ism. Much in his writings is distinctly unheroic in nature, 
but the note of heroism does sound, and here it is in The 
Republic of Silence , where Sartre is describing the life of 
the French Resistance from 1940 to 1945: 

We were never more free than during the German oc¬ 
cupation. We had lost all our rights, beginning with the 
right to talk. Every day we were insulted to our faces 
and had to take it in silence. Under one pretext or an¬ 
other, as workers, Jews, or political prisoners, we were 
deported en masse . Everywhere, on billboards, in the 
newspapers, on the screen, we encountered the revolting 
and insipid picture of ourselves that our suppressors 
wanted us to accept. And because of all this we were 
free. Because the Nazi venom seeped into our thoughts, 
every accurate thought was a conquest. Because an all- 
powerful police tried to force us to hold our tongues, ev¬ 
ery word took on the value of a declaration of principles. 
Because we were hunted down, every one of our gestures 
had the weight of a solemn commitment. . . . 

Exile, captivity, and especially death (which we usu¬ 
ally shrink from facing at all in happier days) became 
for us the habitual objects of our concern. We learned 
that they were neither inevitable accidents, nor even con¬ 
stant and inevitable dangers, but they must be considered 
as our lot itself, our destiny, the profound source of our 



reality as men. At every instant we lived up to the full 
sense of this commonplace little phrase: “Man is mortal!” 
And the choice that each of us made of his life was an 
authentic choice because it was made face to face with 
death, because it could always have been expressed in 
these terms: “Rather death than. . .” And here I am not 
speaking of the elite among us who were real Resistants, 
but of all Frenchmen who, at every hour of the night and 
day throughout four years, answered No, 

And a few years later (1947), in his What is Literature? 
he draws another philosophic conclusion from this expe¬ 

We have been taught to take Evil seriously. It is nei¬ 
ther our fault nor our merit if we lived in a time when 
torture was a daily fact. Chateaubriand, Oradour, the 
Rue des Saussaies, Dachau, and Auschwitz have all dem¬ 
onstrated to us that Evil is not an appearance, that know¬ 
ing its cause does not dispel it, that it is not opposed to 
Good as a confused idea is to a clear one, that it is not 
the effect of passions which might be cured, of a fear 
which might be overcome, of a passing aberration which 
might be excused, of an ignorance which might be en¬ 
lightened, that it can in no way be diverted, brought 
back, reduced, and incorporated into idealistic human¬ 
ism, like that shade of which Leibnitz has written that 
it is necessary for the glare of daylight . . . 

Perhaps a day will come when a happy age, looking 
back at the past, will see in this suffering and shame one 
of the paths which led to peace. But we are not on the 
side of history already made. We were, as I have said, 
situated in such a way that every lived minute seemed 
to us like something irreducible. Therefore, in spite of 
ourselves, we came to this conclusion, which will seem 
shocking to lofty souls: Evil cannot be redeemed. 

It is necessary to emphasize passages like these for Amer¬ 
ican readers who wish to understand Sartre, because Amer¬ 
icans have not yet comprehended what the French have 



lived through: that we have at last arrived at *the age of 
assas sins ” which the poet Rimbaud predicted. Sartre came 
to maturity during the 193° ,S * The atmosphere of Leftist 
politics was over everything, and Sartre has never ceased 
politically to be on the Left. But over France also was the 
stale tired atmosphere of a world already doomed to 
defeat: The Popular Front government of L6on Blum 
drifted, nerveless and flaccid, incapable of meeting the crisis 
of the times; the French bourgeoisie hung on, entrenched 
and petty, unable even to conceive the possibility of any 
great action. “Les scdauds" became a potent term for Sartre 
in those days-the scdauds , the stinkers, the stuffy and self- 
righteous people congealed in the insincerity of their virtues 
and vices. This atmosphere of decay breathes through 
Sartre’s first novel. Nausea, and it is no accident that the 
quotation on the flyleaf is from Celine, the poet of the abyss, 
of the nihilism and disgust of that period. The nausea in 
Sartre’s book is the nausea of existence itself; and to those 
who are ready to use this as an excuse for tossing out the 
whole of Sartrian philosophy, we may point out that it is 
better to encounter one’s existence in disgust than never to 
encounter it at all—as the scdaud in his academic or bour¬ 
geois or party-leader strait jacket never does. The Resist¬ 
ance came to Sartre and his generation as a release from 
disgust into heroism. It was a call to action, an action that 
brought men to the very limits of their being, and in hear¬ 
ing this call man himself was not found wanting. He could 
even rediscover his own irreducible liberty in saying No to 
the overpowering might of the occupying forces. 

The essential freedom, the ultimate and final freedom 
that cannot be taken from a man , is to say No. This is the 
basic premise in Sartre’s view of human freedom: freedom 
is in its very essence negative, though this negativity is also 
creative. At a certain moment, perhaps, the drug or the pain 
inflicted by the torturer may make the victim lose conscious¬ 
ness, and he will confess. But so long as he retains the 
lucidity of consciousness, however tiny the area of action 
possible for him, he can still say in his own mind: No. Con¬ 
sciousness and freedom are thus given together. Only if 



consciousness is blotted out can man be deprived of this 
residual freedom. Where all the avenues of action are 
blocked for a man, this freedom may seem a tiny and un¬ 
important thing; but it is in fact total and absolute, and 
Sartre is right to insist upon it as such, for it affords man 
his final dignity, that of being man. 

The experience of this freedom is not so new in philoso¬ 
phy as it might seem. It is this kind of freedom, in fact, 
that accompanied Descartes throughout the course of his 
famous Systematic Doubt, in which he proposed to say No 
to every belief, no matter how plausible, so long as he saw 
a possibility of doubting it. For the young and brilliant 
Sartre, teaching philosophy before the Second World War, 
Descartes was a special hero—a hero of thought if not of the 
life of action. The experience of the Resistance gave the 
figure of Descartes even greater importance for Sartre, since 
in the Resistance Cartesianism could be incarnated in the 
life of action. As Descartes proposed to say No to that im¬ 
aginary demon who might seduce him into assenting to a 
proposition that was not altogether clear and indubitable, 
though everything in society and nature around him also 
urged him to assent, so the Resistant could say No to the 
might of the Occupation. 

Sartre is a Cartesian who has read Proust and Heidegger, 
and whose psychological explorations of man go far beyond 
those of the seventeenth-century philosopher; more impor¬ 
tant still, he is a Cartesian who has experienced war and 
terror in the modem world and who is therefore situated 
historically in an altogether different relation to the world. 
But a Cartesian he is, nonetheless, as perhaps no French¬ 
man—or no French thinker—can help being when the chips 
are really down. Descartes and the French Resistance— 
Descartes in the French Resistance—these are the simple 
keys to the whole of Sartre’s apparently complicated and 
involved philosophy. 

To see this clearly we need only go back to Descartes at 
a certain moment in his Systematic Doubt. He proposes to 
reject all beliefs so long as they can in any way be doubted, 
to resist all temptations to say Yes until his understanding 



is convinced according to its own light; so he rejects belief 
in the existence of an external world, of minds other than 
his own, of his own body, of his memories and sensations. 
What he cannot doubt is his own consciousness, for to 
doubt is to be conscious, and therefore by doubting its ex¬ 
istence he would affirm it. In the dark void in which Des¬ 
cartes hovered there shone only the light of his own mind. 
But before this certitude shone for him (and even after it, 
before he passed on to other truths), he was a nothingness, 
a negativity, existing outside of nature and history, for he 
had temporarily abolished all belief in a world of bodies 
and memories. Thus man cannot be interpreted, Sartre says, 
as a solid substantial thing existing amid the plenitude of 
things that make up a world; he is beyond nature because 
in his negative capability he transcends it. Man's freedom 
is to say No, and this means that he is the being by whom 
nothingness comes into being. He is able to suspend all of 
nature and history in doubt, to bracket it against the back¬ 
drop of no thingn ess before which the Cartesian doubter 
hovers. Sartre here merely draws conclusions from what is 
existentially implicit in the Cartesian doubt. 

Descartes, of course, was a good Christian and a Catho¬ 
lic, and as a practical matter he had no intention of im¬ 
periling his immortal soul by placing his religious faith in 
doubt while he was performing his intellectual gyrations 
in the void. As a canny and sagacious Frenchman, he pro¬ 
posed to abide by the customs of his time and place (which 
included the practice of religion). Hence, when he launched 
himself into the Doubt, he made certain of securing his 
lines of co mmunic ation behind him; he took no chances 
when he made the descent into the painful night of the 
void. The next step after the certitude of the Cogito , the 
®T think,* thus turns out to be a proof of the existence of 
God; and with God as guarantee the whole world of na¬ 
ture, the multitude of things with their fixed nature or es¬ 
sences that the mind may now know, is re-established 
around Descartes. Sartre, however, is the Cartesian doubter 
at a different place and time: God is dead, and no longer 
guarantees to this passionate and principled atheist that 



vast structure of essences, the world, to which his freedom 
must give assent. As a modem man, Sartre remains in that 
anguish of nothingness in which Descartes floated before 
the miraculous light of God shone to lead him out of it. 
For Sartre there is no unalterable structure of essences or 
values given prior to man’s own existence. That existence 
has meaning, finally, only as the liberty to say No, and by 
saying No to create a world. If we remove God from the 
picture, the liberty which reveals itself in the Cartesian 
doubt is total and absolute; but thereby also the more an¬ 
guished, and this anguish is the irreducible destiny and dig¬ 
nity of man. Here Cartesianism has become more heroic— 
and more demoniacal. 

Thus Sartre ends by allotting to man the kind of freedom 
that Descartes has ascribed only to God. It is, he says, the 
freedom Descartes secretly would have given to man had 
he not been limited by the theological convictions of his 
time and place. Descartes’ God derives from the absolutely 
free God of Duns Scotus rather than from the God of St. 
Thomas Aquinas, who is bound by the laws of logic. This 
Cartesian God, says Sartre, is the freest God that man ever 
invented. He is not subordinate to a realm of essences: 
rather. He creates essences and causes than to be what 
they are. Hence such a God transcends the laws of logic 
and mathematics. As His existence precedes all essences, so 
man’s existence precedes his essence; he exists, and out of 
the free project which his existence can be he makes him¬ 
self what he is. When God dies, man takes the place of 
God. Such had been the prophecy of Dostoevski and Nietz¬ 
sche, and Sartre on this point is their heir. The difference, 
however, is that Dostoevski and Nietzsche were frenzied 
prophets, whereas Sartre advances his view with all the 
lucidity of Cartesian reason and advances it, moreover, as 
a basis for hu m a n itarian and democratic social action. To 
put man in the place of God may seem, to traditionalists, 
an unspeakable piece of diabolism; but in Sartre’s case it is 
done by a thinker who, to judge from his writings, is a man 
of overwhelming good will and generosity. 




Sartre’s philosophy is based on a dualism which, if not 
Cartesian to the letter, is certainly Cartesian in spirit. Be¬ 
ing, says Sartre, is divided into two fundamental kinds: (1) 
Being4nritself and (2) Being-for-itself. Being-inritself (Sar¬ 
tre’s en-soi) is the self-contained being of a thing. A stone 
is a stone; it is what it is; and in being just what it is, no 
more and no less, the being of the thing always coincides 
with itself. Being-for-itself (pour-soi) is coextensive with 
the realm of consciousness, and the nature of consciousness 
is that it is perpetually beyond itself. Our thought goes be¬ 
yond itself, toward tomorrow or yesterday, and toward the 
outer edges of the world. Human existence is thus a per¬ 
petual self-transcendence: in existing we are always beyond 
ourselves. Consequently we never possess our being as we 
possess a thing. Our existence from moment to moment is a 
perpetual flying beyond ourselves, or else a perpetual fall¬ 
ing behind our own possibilities; in any case, our being 
never exactly coincides with itself. It could do so only if we 
sank into the self-contained form of the being of a thing, 
and this would be possible only if we ceased to be conscious. 

This notion of the For-itself may seem obscure, but we 
encounter it on the most ordinary occasions. I have been to 
a party; I come away, and with a momentary pang of sad¬ 
ness I say, “I am not myself.” It is necessary to take this 
proposition quite literally as something that only man can 
say of him self, because only man can say it to himself. I 
have the feeling of coming to myself after having lost or 
mislaid my being momentarily in a social encounter that 
estranged me from myself. This is the first and immediate 
level on which the term yields its meaning. But the next 
and deeper level of meaning occurs when the feeling of sad¬ 
ness leads me to think in a spirit of self-reproach that I am 
not myself in a still more fundamental sense: I have not 
realized so many of the plans or projects that make up my 
being; I am not myself because I do not measure up to 



myself. Beneath this level too there is still another and 
deeper meaning, rooted in the very nature of my being: I 
am not myself, and I can never be myself, because my being 
stretching out beyond itself at any given moment exceeds 
itself. I am always simultaneously more and less than I am. 

Herein lies the fundamental uneasiness, or anxiety, of the 
human condition, for Sartre. Because we are perpetually 
Bitting beyond ourselves, or falling behind our possibilities, 
we seek to ground our existence, to make it more secure. 
In seeking for security we seek to give our existence the 
self-contained being of a thing. The For-itself struggles to 
become the In-itself, to attain the rocldike and unshakable 
solidity of a thing. But this it can never do so long as it is 
conscious and alive. Man is doomed to the radical inse¬ 
curity and contingency of his being; for without it he would 
not be m an but merely a thing and would not have the 
human capacity for transcendence of his given situation. 
There is a curious dialectical interplay here: that which 
constitutes man’s power and glory, that which lies at the 
very heart of his power to be lord over things, namely his 
capacity to transcend himself and his immediate situation, 
is at one and the same time that which causes the fragility, 
the wavering and flight, the anguish of our human lot. 

With enormous ingenuity and virtuosity Sartre inter¬ 
weaves these two notions—Being-in-itself and Being-for- 
itself—to elucidate the complexities of h uman psychology. 
The principal work in which he does this is L’&tre et l& 
nSant (Being and Nothingness ), a great, uneven, brilliant 
and verbose tome which he worked on during the Resist¬ 
ance and which appeared in 1944. Sartre’s debt to Heideg¬ 
ger is great, but his own originality is unquestionable. He 
is one of the most brilliant minds alive—sometimes we feel 
too brilliant, for the greatest mind needs a little saving 
streak of earth-bound stupidity somewhere, so the feet can 
be planted mulishly on the soil of some unshakable fact. 
Sartre has learned all the dialectical tricks of Hegel, and he 
can trot them out as he chooses with a virtuosity that is at 
times excessive. It is a use of Hegel’s means toward an ex¬ 
istential rather than an idealistic end, of course, for Sartre 



can never go the way of Hegel: he believes, in opposition 
to the idealist, that Evil is real and cannot be redeemed, 
that the negative can never be sublimated in the pure posi¬ 
tive being of the Absolute. Dachau and Belsen have taught 
him that. Where Sartre goes beyond Heidegger is in giving 
a more detailed elaboration of the negative side of human 
existence. For Heidegger the essentially temporal being of 
man is pervaded by the negatives of the not -yet and no- 
longer; but Sartre does much more with this, nosing out all 
the sordid and seedy strands of nothingness that haunt our 
human condition like a bad breath or body odor. Never in 
the thought of the West has the Self been so pervaded by 
negation. One would have to go to the East, to the Bud¬ 
dhist philosopher Nagarjuna (circa 200 a.d.), with his 
doctrine of Anatman , the insubstantiality of the Self, to 
meet as awesome a list of negations as Sartre draws up. 
The Self, indeed, is in Sartre’s treatment, as in Buddhism, 
a bubble, and a bubble has nothing at its center. 

But neither in Buddhism nor in Sartre is the Self riddled 
with negations to the end that we should, humanly speak¬ 
ing, collapse into the negative, into a purely passive nihil¬ 
ism. In Bud dhis m the recognition of the nothingness of our¬ 
selves is intended to lead into a striving for holiness and 
compassion—the recognition that in the end there is not hin g 
that sustains us should lead us to love one another, as sur¬ 
vivors on a life raft, at the moment they grasp that the 
ocean is shoreless and that no rescue ship is coming, can 
only have compassion on one another. For Sartre, on the 
other hand, the nothingness of the Self is the basis for the 
will to action: the bubble is empty and will collapse, and 
so what is left us but the energy and passion to spin that 
bubble out? Man’s existence is absurd in the midst of a 
cosmos that knows him not; the only meaning he can give 
Tiimgftlf is thro ugh the free project that he launches out of 
in'g own no thingne ss. Sartre turns from nothingness not to 
compassion or holiness, but to human freedom as realized 
in revolutionary activity. In this final appeal to the will to 
action there is a secret kinship with Nietzsche; and nothing 
justifies more fully Heidegger s contention that Nietzsche is 



the secret master of Western metaphysics in its final stage 
than the way in which Sartre’s thinking comes around in 
the end to join Nietzsche’s. 

However great his i n i t i a l dependence upon Heidegger, 
Sartre’s philosophy moves finally in an altogether opposite 
direction. He misses the very root of all of Heidegger’s 
thinking, which is Being itself. There is, in Sartre, Being- 
for-itself and Bemg-in-itself but there is no Being. How can 
the For-itself and In-itself meet unless both stand out in the 
open space of Being? We have here, in Sartre, the world 
cleft once again into the Cartesian dualism of subject and 
object, the world of consciousness and the world of things. 
Sartre has advanced as the fundamental thesis of his Ex¬ 
istentialism the proposition that existence precedes essence. 
This thesis is true for Heidegger as well, in the historical, 
social, and biographical sense that man comes into exist¬ 
ence and makes himself to be what he is. But for Heidegger 
another proposition is even more basio than this: namely. 
Being precedes existence. For without the open clearing of 
Being into which man can transcend himself, he could not 
ex-sist, i.e., stand out beyond himself. Man can make him¬ 
self be what he is only because all his projects are revealed 
to him as taking place within the open field or region of 
Being. This is why Heidegger has declared, T am not an 
Existentialist^-because the Existentialists of the Sartrian 
school do not grasp this priority of Being, and so their think¬ 
ing remains, like that of Descartes, locked up in the human 

To be sure, Sartre has gone a considerable step beyond 
Descartes by making the essence of human consciousness 
to be transcendence: that is, to be conscious is, imm e dia tely 
and as such, to point beyond that isolated act of conscious¬ 
ness and therefore to be beyond or above it. Descartes, at 
the extreme point of his thought, had envisaged conscious¬ 
ness as absolutely enclosed in itself, with the world of 
external objects shut out, and all the past and future sus¬ 
pended. But this step forward by Sartre is not so considera¬ 
ble if the transcending subject has nowhere to transcend 
himself: if there is not an open field or region of Being in 



which the fateful dualism of subject and object ceases to 
be. Modem philosophy from Descartes onward has asked 
itself the question: How can the subject really know the ob¬ 
ject? By the time of Kant (and despite all the advances in 
physical knowledge since Descartes) the human mind felt 
itself so estranged from nature that Kant’s answer was that 
the subject can never know the object-in-itself. And from 
there it is but a short step to Nietzsche, who declares that 
knowledge of the object-in-itself is unnecessary—all we need 
is to be able to master it, and hence the Will to Power 
becomes primary. (In Sartre what becomes primary is 
rather the will to action.) 

Now, Heidegger’s reversal of this development in modem 
philosophy is radical and goes to the root of the matter; 
and I do not think Sartre has seen this aspect of Heidegger’s 
thought. For what Heidegger proposes is a more basic ques¬ 
tion than that of Descartes and Kant: namely, how is it 
possible for the subject to he? and for the object to he? 
And his answer is: Because both stand out in the truth, or 
un-hiddenness, of Being. This notion of the truth of Being 
is absent from the philosophy of Sartre; indeed, nowhere in 
his vast Being and Nothingness does he deal with the prob¬ 
lem of truth in a radical and existential way: so far as he 
understands truth at all, he takes it in the ordinary intel- 
lectualistic sense that has been traditional with non-existen- 
tial philosophers. In the end (as well as at his very be¬ 
ginning) Sartre turns out thus to be a Cartesian rationalist- 
one, to be sure, whose material is impassioned and existen¬ 
tial, but for all that not any the less a Cartesian in his ul¬ 
timate d ualis m between the For-itself and the In-itself. And 
the curious irony about this is that Sartre, whose name the 
general public has come to take as synonymous with Ex¬ 
istentialism, is the one existential philosopher who does not 
deal with the prime question that has been the central pas¬ 
sion of nearly all the Existentialists—the question, namely, of 
a truth for man that is more than a truth of the intellect. 

It is altogether consistent therefore that Sartre should ad¬ 
vertise his brand of Existentialism to the public as a new 
humanism. Like every humanism, it teaches that the proper 



study of mankind is man, or, as Marx put it, that the root 
of mankind is man. But, again like every humanism, it 
leaves unasked the question: What is the root of man? In 
this search for roots for man—a search that has, as we have 
seen, absorbed thinkers and caused the malaise of poets for 
the last hundred and fifty years—Sartre does not participate* 
He leaves man rootless. This may be because Sartre him¬ 
self is the quintessence of the urban intellectual—perhaps 
the most brilliant urban intellectual of our time, but still 
with the inevitable alienation of this type. He seems to 
breathe the air of the modem city, of its caf£s, faubourgs, 
and streets, as if there were no other home for man. 


Such too is the impression with which his more strictly 
literary works leave us. It is a paradox that altho ug h the 
Existentialists have often been accused of really being lit¬ 
erary men or poets rather than philosophers (in the strict 
academic sense), Sartre, the one Exis tentialist who has ful¬ 
filled him self as a literary man, pouring out novels, plays, 
and literary essays, and who indeed earns his living now as 
a professional writer, is in his philosophy the most intel- 
lectualistic of all the Existentialists. The fact is that despite 
Sartre’s enormous strictly literary output, men like Kierke¬ 
gaard and Nietzsche had more of the artist in them. They 
were poets, and not only is there nothing of the poet in 
Sartre, but he even shows little real feeling for poetry when 
he talks about it. His conception of literature is a thor¬ 
oughly intellectual one: in his What is Literature (1947), 
a long and brilliant essay in critical theory, he develops the 
fu n da m ental view that literature is a mode of action, an 
act of the writer’s freedom that seeks to appeal to the free¬ 
dom of other individuals and eventually to the total free 
collective of mankind. Stripped of its metaphysical lan¬ 
guage, his theory leads him to espouse a kind of social re¬ 
alism in literature. Thus the greatest living writer, he tells 
us, is John Dos Passos. Such a judgment is rather shocking 



as evidence of Sartre’s literary taste—or lack of it. But the 
philosopher is really responding to the idea of Dos Passos’ 
fiction, not to the novels as works of art. Dos Passos is, for 
Sartre, the perfect example of what he believes a writer 
should do and what he himself tries to do in his own later 
fiction: that is, grapple with the problems of man in his 
time and milieu. Sartre’s novels are a technically dazzling, 
streamlined variety of social realism. It is always to the 
idea, and particularly the idea as it leads to social action, 
that Sartre responds. Hence he cannot do justice, either in 
his critical theory or in his actual practice of literary criti¬ 
cism, to poetry, which is precisely that form of human ex¬ 
pression in which the poet—and the reader who would en¬ 
ter the poet’s world—must let Being be, to use Heidegger’s 
phrase, and not attempt to coerce it by the will to action 
or the will to intellectualization. The absence of the poet 
in Sartre, as a literary man, is thus another evidence of 
what, on the philosophical level, leads to a deficiency in 
his theory of Being. 

Sartre is a writer of very powerful gifts, nevertheless, 
who succeeds in his effects whenever the idea itself is able 
to generate artistic passion and life. His first novel. Nausea 
(1938), may well be his best book for the very reason that 
in it the intellectual and the creative artist come closest to 
being joined. Much as ideas and the elaboration of ideas 
figure in the book, the author has not shirked the novelist’s 
tasks, and the remarkable thing is the life with which the 
ideas are invested, which forms the intimate texture of the 
hero’s experience and sensibility. The mood of this life is 
disgust, which can as well as any other mood become the 
occasion of discovery, a radical plunge into ones own ex¬ 
istence. It is authentically human, this disgust, and turns 
out to be novelistically exciting, though it has nothing like 
the grand scope and implications of C 61 ine’s disgust. Sar¬ 
tre’s treatment is more self-conscious and more subtle, 
philosophically, but also more static; his disgust is not em¬ 
bodied, as Celine’s is, in the desperate picaresque of com¬ 
mon life and the anonymous depths of street characters. 
Nausea is not so much a full novel as an extraordinary frag- 



ment of one. In his later fiction Sartre has turned away from 
the narrow and intense form of the early book to a broader 
panorama, and not always with entirely happy results. 

These later novels—originally a trilogy, Les Chemins de 
la LibertS (The Roads to Liberty) and now a tetralogy- 
may go on being issued as endlessly as the toman fleuve 
of Jules Romains, if Sartre’s volcanic activity as a writer 
continues. One does wish that Sartre would pause for a 
while and regroup his forces. The man really writes too 
much. Perhaps if literature becomes a mode of action one 
gets so caught up in it that one cannot stop the action. 
These later novels of his contain remarkable things—great 
scenes and passages—and their theme is the central Sartrian 
one of the search for liberty, or rather for the realization 
in life of that liberty that we always and essentially are, 
sometimes even in spite of ourselves. Yet they are so uneven 
in achievement, one regrets to see Sartre’s great talents wan¬ 
dering and thinning out like spilt milk. 

Of his plays too, it may be said that his two earlier and 
shorter ones—Les Mouches (The Flies) and Huis Clos (No 
Exit)—axe his best. They are at any rate the things to rec¬ 
ommend to the reader who wishes to get the concrete drift 
of Sartre’s philosophy but has no stomach for the elaborate 
dialectic of Being and Nothingness. 

The Flies, first produced while the Resistance was still 
going on, is in form something of a set piece, since it deals 
with the myth of Orestes and the Furies; but it is charged 
throughout with a passion and eloquence bom of Sartre’s 
own personal convictions. Orestes is the spokesman for the 
Sartrian view of liberty. The solution of the play is not at 
all like that in Aeschylus, for here there are no supernatu¬ 
ral agencies that can deliver Orestes from his guilt. He has 
to take that guilt upon himself, and he does so at the end 
of the play in a superbly defiant speech before the cosmic 
Gestapo chief Jupiter; he accepts his guilt, he exclaims, 
knowing that to do so is absurd because he is a man and 
therefore free. In discharging his freedom man also wills to 
accept the responsibility of it, thus becoming heavy with 
his own guilt. Conscience, Heidegger has said, is the will 


to be guilty—that is, to accept the guilt that we know will 
be ours whatever course of action we take. 

No Exit , the most sensational of Sartre’s dramatic suc¬ 
cesses, displays perhaps to their best advantage his real 
talents as a writer: the intense driving energy of the play, 
the passion of the ideas expressed, we can recognize as au¬ 
thentically his. The three characters of No Exit are planted 
in Hell; they are being punished, rather in the manner of 
Dante, by being given exactly the fruit of their evil itself. 
Having practiced “bad faith” in life—which, in Sartre’s 
terms, is the surrendering of one’s human liberty in order 
to possess, or try to possess, one’s being as a thing —the 
three characters now have what they had sought to sur¬ 
render themselves to. Having died, they cannot change any¬ 
thing in their past lives, which are exactly what they are, 
no more and no less, just like the static being of things. 
These three persons have no being other than that each 
has in the eyes of the others; they exist in each other’s gaze, 
in fact. But this is exactly what they longed for in life—to 
lose their own subjective being by identifying themselves 
with what they were in the eyes of other people. It is a 
torment that people do in fact choose on earth; the bour¬ 
geois sdaud and the anti-Semite, Sartre says, have chosen 
as themselves their public stance or role, and thus really 
exist not as free beings for themselves but as beings in the 
eyes of others. 

Despite the excitement and intensity of No Exit as the¬ 
ater, the distinctly intellectual nature of Sartre’s gifts once 
again reveals itsek The three characters are thinly blocked 
out, hardly more than single intense curves of action, il¬ 
lustrating the three evils of cowardice, Lesbianism, infan¬ 
ticide. Beyond a certain point they hold no surprises for 
us, they are without contingency—and this from an author 
who denies the existence of “character” as a fixed t h i n g. 
The same is true here as we observed earlier of Nausea: 
Sartre succeeds most surely where the fusion of intellectual 
with creative writer is most intimate and passionate. But 
this is always achieved by the writer’s drawing secret drafts 
on the philosopher’s credit. As a writer Sartre is always 



the impassioned rhetorician of the idea; and the rhetorician, 
no matter how great and how eloquent his rhetoric, never 
has the full being of the artist. If Sartre were really a poet 
and an artist, we would have from him a different phi¬ 
losophy, as we shall see from turning back now to that 


One would expect that Being-in-itself, as the realm of 
self-identical objects, would be invested by Sartre with 
imagery suggesting stiffness and rigidity. Quite the con¬ 
trary: this vast realm is associated for him with images of 
softness, stickiness, viscosity, corpulence, flabbiness. There 
is too much of it, and it is heavy, like a fat lady in the 
circus. In the famous episode in Nausea where the hero, 
Roquentin, discovers existence in the experience of disgust, 
he is looking at a chestnut tree in a provincial park: the 
roots are tangled and excessive; the tree itself is de trop, 
too much, excessive. Since it has no ultimate reason for ex- 
isting, Being-in-itself is absurd: its existence is a kind of su¬ 
perfetation. Its softness has the quality of the feminine. Be¬ 
hind all Sartre’s intellectual dialectic we perceive that the 
In-itself is for him the archetype of nature: excessive, fruit¬ 
ful, blooming nature—the woman, the female. 

The For-itself, by contrast, is for Sartre the masculine as¬ 
pect of human psychology: it is that in virtue of which man 
chooses himself in his radical liberty, makes projects, and 
thereby gives his life what strictly human meaning it has. 

It is necessary to call attention to these feminine and mas¬ 
culine images that circulate in the background of Sartre’s 
more formal concepts because in Being and Nothingness 
and certain other writings he has attempted to sketch a new 
and radical type of psychology. He calls it “existential psy¬ 
choanalysis, and it has already caught on somewhat in Eu¬ 
rope; a group of psychiatrists there has espoused it, and 
even in this country it has its professional adherents. This 
new type of psychoanalysis, Sartre says, will replace or at 
least supplement the older forms. The essence of ac- 



cording to the French thinker, lies not in the Oedipus com¬ 
plex (as Freud held) nor in the inferiority complex (as Ad¬ 
ler maintained); it lies rather in the radical liberty of man’s 
existence by which he chooses himself and so makes hims elf 
what he is. Man is not to be seen as the passive plaything of 
unconscious forces, which determine what he is to be. In 
fact, Sartre denies the existence of an unconscious mind al¬ 
together; wherever the mind manifests itself, he holds, it is 
conscious. A human personality or human life is not to be 
understood in terms of some hypothetical unconscious at 
work behind the scenes and pulling all the wires that ma¬ 
nipulate the puppet of consciousness. A man is his life, says 
Sartre; which means that he is nothing more nor less than 
the totality of acts that make up that life. And to under¬ 
stand truly a man’s life we have simply to grasp the struc¬ 
ture, at once single and complex, that binds together all 
those overt acts—this structure being, in fact, just the unique 
and irreplaceable project that is that individual’s life. 

Sartre has given his theory a remarkably concrete appli¬ 
cation in a biographical study, Baudelaire , published here 
in 1950. We cannot, according to Sartre, understand Bau¬ 
delaire’s life—his poetry, his ideas, his quarrels—by relating 
all these things to his sexuality; on the contrary, the sexual¬ 
ity must be seen to take its place in the whole life, and 
indeed to take its form and direction from the total project 
that is that life. The choice of himself that made Baude¬ 
laire’s life what it was occurred, says Sartre, when he was 
sent off to school as a boy and thus for the first time was 
separated from his mother: alienated and intimidated by 
his schoolfellows, he withdrew into himself, and there the 
choice of himself as solitary and different began. Sartre 
shows how this choice radiates, like the ripple from a stone, 
through the whole life that followed: the cultivation of the 
poet’s mind as a mirror of his solitude; his withdrawal from 
the fatness and lubricity of nature in visions of a completely 
inorganic world, a city of metals without a single tree, etc., 
etc. Sartre assembles a great number of details and corre¬ 
lates them well, so that we are left with a powerful and 
u n ified image of Baudelaire’s life. But how convincing is his 



picture as rendering the total truth about Baudelaire? And 
how convincing is this new psychoanalysis he has here put 
to the test? 

In the first place, the choice of himself that Baudelaire 
is supposed to have made at around the age of twelve 
hardly appears to have been a conscious and resolute proj¬ 
ect, elected then and there for a whole lifetime. If it was 
not conscious, then Sartre would be forced to admit the ex¬ 
istence of an unconscious; for if Baudelaire’s life was a single 
project—that is, a choice of himself as the being he was to 
be—reflected in all the myriad details of his life, the way in 
which it was to be reflected was unknown to him at twelve, 
and therefore the project itself, as a totality, was in good 
part unconscious. If a human life is a concrete liberty ra¬ 
diating outward into all the details of our actions, some peo¬ 
ple may indeed know what their project is, what their life 
means, but at any one time a vast portion of this project as 
manifested in all our actions must be hidden from us. Sartre 
does not admit this, but if he did he would be compelled 
to take refuge in the notion of an unconscious project. In 
any case, the unconscious has to be reintroduced as soon as 
we seek to apply existential psychoanalysis concretely. 

The merits of Sartre’s theory as psychology we leave to 
the psychologists to determine; what concerns us here is 
the philosophic thought that lies at the root of the psychol¬ 
ogy. And once again the root is Cartesianism: the identifi¬ 
cation of mind with consciousness, with the Cogito, is a 
Cartesian identification. When Descartes said “I think, 
therefore I am,” tie statement—apart from its merely func¬ 
tional usage as marking a certain stage in his reasoning— 
was, humanly speaking, the statement of a man who iden¬ 
tifies his own reality with his thought The unconscious is 
something alien and opposite: Consciousness is a realm of 
clear and distinct ideas, but the world of the unconscious 
is the fat, formless, fructifying domain of the In-itself of na¬ 
ture. This latter world can be forgotten and finally denied 
to exist. A Cartesian subjectivity (which is what Sartre’s is) 
cannot admit the existence of the unconscious because the 
unconscious is the Other in oneself; and the glance of the 


Other, in Sartre, is always like the stare of Medusa, fearful 
and petrifying. 

This relation to the Other is one of the most sensational 
and best-known aspects of Sartre’s psychology. To the other 
person, who looks at me from the outside, I seem an object, 
a thing; my subjectivity with its inner freedom escapes his 
gaze. Hence his tendency is always to convert me into the 
object he sees. The gaze of the Other penetrates to the 
depths of my existence, freezes and congeals it. It is this, 
according to Sartre, that turns love and particularly sexual 
love into a perpetual tension and indeed warfare. The lover 
wishes to possess the beloved, but the freedom of the be¬ 
loved (which is his or her human essence) cannot be pos¬ 
sessed; hence, the lover tends to reduce the beloved to an 
object for the sake of possessing it. Love is menaced always 
by a perpetual oscillation between sadism and masochism: 
In sadism I reduce the other to a mere lump, to be beaten 
and manipulated as I choose, while in masochism I offer 
myself as an object, but in an attempt to entrap the other 
and undermine his freedom. With a dialectical ingenuity 
that is almost fiendish Sartre exposes the interplay between 
the two tendencies. There is no doubt that he sheds light 
on a tension that must be perpetually present when two 
persons love each other; but there does seem to be doubt, 
after we have got through all his pulverizing analysis, that 
the very excess of his dialectic may not actually make dis¬ 
appear the very possibility of love, as love sometimes (de¬ 
spite him) does really occur in our day-to-day life. What 
has happened here is simply that Sartre has fallen victim 
to his own philosophic principles: As he can find in his phi¬ 
losophy no field or region of Being in which the subject, 
Being-for-itself, and the object, Being-in-itself, really meet, 
so when he comes to psychology the self must remain irre¬ 
mediably opposed to the Other, and there is no area be¬ 
tween in which I may genuinely say Thou to the Other. A 
Cartesian subjectivity, which Sartre’s fundamentally is, 
must work itself out into just such a psychological theory 
of the emotions as Sartre has given us. 

What he is describing is at bottom the eternal war be- 



tween the sexes, of which Adler spoke. In fact, if we strip 
Sartre’s psychology of its particular philosophical terminol¬ 
ogy, it turns out to be fundamentally an Adlerian psychol¬ 
ogy. Adler, following Nietzsche, based his psychology on 
the Will to Power, and this, as we see from the endless cycle 
of sadism-masochism to which he condemns love, is true of 
Sartre too. Eros disappears before the Will to Power. Sartre 
is driven once again into the Nietzschean camp: where Be¬ 
ing is lost—the Being that would unite the For-itself, the 
subject, with the In-itself, the object—man is left to find his 
meaning only in his mastery over objects. What is the Sar- 
trian project that makes up our very being but a confirma¬ 
tion of the Adlerian notion of a “guiding thread or motive” 
by which we try to unify and give meaning to our whole 
life? Like Adler s, Sartre’s is fundamentally a masculine psy¬ 
chology; it misunderstands or disparages the psychology of 
woman. The humanity of man consists in the For-itself, the 
masculine component by which we choose, make projects, 
and generally commit ourselves to the life of action. The ele¬ 
ment of masculine protest, to use Adler’s term, is strong 
throughout Sartre’s writings—whether it be the disgust of 
Mathieu (in Roads to Liberty) at his pregnant mistress, or 
the disgust (it is fundamentally the same disgust) of 
Roquentin, in Nausea , at the bloated roots of the chestnut 
tree; or Sartre’s philosophical analysis (in Being and Noth¬ 
ingness) of the viscous, the thick, sticky substance that 
would entrap his liberty like the soft threat of the body of 
a woman. And the woman is a threat, for the woman is 
nature and Sartrian man exists in the liberty of his project, 
which, since it is ultimately unjustified and unjustifiable, in 
effect sunders him totally from nature. The whole of Sartre’s 
psychology is thus the Cartesian dualism given a new and 
startling modem content. 

We are now in a better position to assess Sartre’s funda¬ 
mental notion of liberty. He is right to make the liberty of 
choice, which is the liberty of a conscious action, total and 
absolute, no matter how small the area of our power: in 
choosing, I have to say No somewhere, and this No, which 
is total and totally exclusive of other alternatives, is dread- 



ful; but only by shutting myself up in it is any resoluteness 
of action possible. A friend of mine, a very intelligent and 
sensitive man, was over a long period in the grip of a neu¬ 
rosis that took the form of indecision in the face of almost 
every occasion of life; sitting in a restaurant, he could not 
look at the printed menu to choose his lunch without see¬ 
ing the abyss of the negative open before his eyes, on the 
page, and so falling into a sweat. (He was not a Sartrian, 
and had not even read Sartre; but his description of his own 
experience was exactly in terms of this abyss of Nothing 
opening before his eyes on the page.) Critics may make 
the superficial observation that this only shows how silly 
and neurotic Sartre’s view of freedom is. But, on the con¬ 
trary, it confirms Sartre’s analysis of freedom, for only be¬ 
cause freedom is what he says it is could this man have 
been frightened by it and have retreated into the anxiety 
of indecision. The neurosis consisted in the fact that free¬ 
dom, that total and absolute thing, could cause the abyss 
to open on such trifling occasions. But the example points 
up also where Sartre’s theory is decidedly lacking: it does 
not show us the kind of objects in relation to which our 
human subjectivity can define itself in a free choice that is 
meaningful and not neurotic. This is so because Sartre’s 
doctrine of liberty was developed out of the experience of 
extreme situations: the victim says to his totalitarian oppres¬ 
sor, No, even if you kill me; and he shuts himself up in this 
No and will not be shaken from it. Our resoluteness in any 
choice exacts from us something as total as this, although 
it need not be exacted from us in so violent and extreme a 
situation. But he who shuts himself up in the No can be 
demoniacal, as Kierkegaard pointed out; he can say No 
against himself, against his own nature. Sartre’s doctrine of 
freedom does not really comprehend the concrete man who 
is an undivided totality of body and mind, at once, and 
without division, both In-itself and For-itself; but rather an 
isolated aspect of this total condition, the aspect of man al¬ 
ways at the margin of his existence. 

Thus the crucial question, Sartre tells us, is this: Under 
what exceptional conditions does a man really experience 



his freedom? Notice the word “exceptional” here. Why not 
ask instead: Under what ordinary, average, everyday con¬ 
ditions does a man experience his freedom? An artist—and 
particularly not an intellectual artist like Sartre—when the 
work is going well experiences his freedom as just that 
effortless burgeoning, swelling, flowing, which has for him 
the quality of the inevitable flow of nature. It is like that 
pear tree blooming there in the yard—very different from 
the nauseating chestnut tree of Roquentin—effortlessly and 
beautifully bringing forth its fruit into the s unlight . Because 
Sartre’s psychology recognizes only the conscious, it cannot 
comprehend a form of freedom that operates in that zone 
of the human personality where conscious and unconscious 
flow into each other. Being limited to the conscious, it in¬ 
evitably becomes an ego psychology; hence freedom is un¬ 
derstood only as the resolute project of the conscious ego. 

Under what day-to-day conditions does the religious man 
—to take another example—experience his freedom? That, 
from Sartre’s thoroughly secular point of view, the beliefs 
of religion are absurd does not eater into this question; for 
the religious psychology does in fact exist, and any psycho¬ 
logical theory that failed to cover it would be inadequate. 
How does a St. Paul experience his freedom? He has died 
the death, cast off the bondage of an old self, and now he 
lives and energetically organizes a church: “And yet not I 
live, but Christ liveth in me.” His freedom is the surrender 
to the redeeming image of something greater than himself. 
This is the freedom of spiritual man, not Cartesian man. 
The project that is the life of a St. Paul is not primarily a 
conscious choice of himself, but is the result of a conversion 
that arose out of the depths of his unconscious. Cartesian 
man knows neither the freedom of spirit nor of nature, for 
in both of these the dualism of the In-itself and the For- 
itself breaks down. 

Or, to take a third example, consider the psychology of 
the ordinary woman. Not of the women one meets in 
Sartre’s novels or plays; nor of that woman, his friend, who 
wrote a book of feminine protest, The Second Sex , which 
is in reality the protest against being feminine. No, take a 


26 l 

totally ordinary woman, one of that great number whose 
being is the involvement with family and children, and 
some of whom are happy at it, or at least as humanly ful¬ 
filled by it as the male by his own essentially masculine 
projects. What sense does it make to say that such a wom¬ 
an’s identity is constituted by her project? Her project is 
family and children, and these do in fact make up a total 
human commitment; but it is hardly a project that has is¬ 
sued out of the conscious ego. Her whole life, with what¬ 
ever freedom it reveals, is rather the unfolding of nature 
through her. As soon as we begin to think about the psy¬ 
chology of women, Sartre’s psychology shows itself indeed 
to be exclusively a masculine affair; but the masculine that 
—alone, unjustified, and on the very margins of existence— 
has sundered itself from nature. 

No doubt all of Sartre’s theory is, as perhaps every psy¬ 
chological theory must be, a projection of his own personal 
psychology; there are plenty of signs of this in the novels 
and plays, where he reveals himself copiously. But he is 
also a thinker passionately identified with his ideas; and for 
us the significance of his complicated and often brilliant ex¬ 
ploration of human psychology lies in the fact that it stems 
ultimately from Cartesian dualism, and brings to comple¬ 
tion that sundering of man from nature with which Des¬ 
cartes initiated the modem epoch. Sartre is certainly right 
in insisting that man comes to exist only by sundering him¬ 
self from nature—that this is his human fate in a universe 
that knows him not; but it is a question of how far this 
sundering can go without the human project becoming de¬ 
moniacal, insane, or simply too brittle to have any human 
substance. In our own lives, when they are going at their 
best, the Xn-itself, the unconscious—or nature—is perpetually 
flowing through and sustaining the For-itself of our con¬ 

Sartre’s freedom is demoniacal. It is rootless freedom. 
This doctrine happens, of course, to be maintained by a 
man of great good will, generosity, and courage; and the 
project he has chosen as his own, in which he has chosen 



himself, is the humanitarian and liberal one of revolutionary 
action. Sartre’s long and checkered relations with the Com¬ 
munists would be a matter of high comedy if they were 
not so clearly a part of the general contemporary tragedy. 
Sartre believed that the Communist Party was truly the 
party of the working class, and he was willing therefore to 
cast his lot with that party in the field of practical politics. 
Meanwhile, in philosophy, he intended to retain his own 
freedom, including his doctrine of freedom. He came to the 
Communists, offering them all his talents and energy—and 
was rebuffed. In practical politics Sartre has shown himself 
very naive, but in the course of his philosophical quarrels 
with the Communists he has produced some of the best in¬ 
tellectual polemic of our time. It was a case, in these po¬ 
lemics, of Cartesian man against the Communist robot; and 
whatever reservations we may have about Cartesian man, 
he is in part human and dwarfs the party robot. Besides, 
Sartre is a man of surpassing intelligence, which his oppo¬ 
nents among the Communist intellectuals certainly were 
not. What lay behind the entire controversy was the 
shadow that Marxist man does not face: Sartre based his 
revolutionary activity upon a free choice, the Marxist upon 
an objective historic process, the former recognizing the in¬ 
alienable subjectivity of man, the latter reducing man to an 
object in a process. Moreover, Sartre’s atheism states can¬ 
didly what the Philistine atheism of Communism (and all 
other Philistine forms of atheism) does not have enough im¬ 
agination or courage to say: that man is an alien in the 
universe, unjustified and unjustifiable, absurd in the simple 
sense that there is no Leibnitzian reason sufficient to ex¬ 
plain why he or his universe exists. Sartre’s atheism—the 
way in which he exists in it—does not lose its grasp of the 
essentially problematic nature of man. And therein Sartre 
points the way to the question Marxist man will have to 
ask, the devil he will have to face, if and when the classless 
society should ever be achieved. 

It has been remarked that Kierkegaard’s statement of the 
religious position is so severe that it has turned many peo¬ 
ple who thought themselves religious to atheism. Analo- 



gously, Sartre’s view of atheism is so stark and bleak that 
it seems to turn many people toward religion. This is ex¬ 
actly as it should be. The choice must be hard either way; 
for man, a problematic being to his depths, cannot lay hold 
of his ultimate commitments with a smug and easy security. 

It may be that, as the modem world moves on, the 
Sartiian kind of freedom will be more and more the only 
kind man can experience. As society becomes more totali¬ 
tarian, the islands of freedom get smaller and more cut off 
from the mainland and from each other—which is to say 
from any spontaneous interchange with nature or the com¬ 
munity of other human beings. Sartre’s Orestes says to his 
celestial oppressor, “I am a man, Jupiter.” One imagines the 
last Resistant of the last Resistance saying No in a prison 
cell in the Lubianka; saying No without any motive of self¬ 
advantage and without any hope that future humans will 
take up his cause, but saying No nonetheless simply be¬ 
cause he is a man and his liberty cannot be taken from him. 
This last man would exist in a night darker than that into 
which the great Descartes cast himself, in that historic inn 
in Holland, when he paused to think and said No to the 
demon. It cannot be said that Sartre has not given us good 



Chapter Eleven 

Thisbook began with a look at the present situation of 
man and of philosophy; then outlined the historical back¬ 
ground against which this situation must be understood; 
and moved on to a view of four philosophers who have 
given explicit formulation to the issues implicit in that his¬ 
tory. Now, at the end, we come back to our beginning: 
to the situation of the world here and now, from which all 
understanding must start and to which it must return. In 
all existential thinking it is we ourselves, the questioners, 
who are ultimately in question. 

The four philosophers whom we have considered—Kier¬ 
kegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre-do not in any 
way represent all the facets of Existentialism; there may 
even be, among the Existentialists whom we have not 
treated at length, figures that would prove more humanly 
appealing to the individual reader. These four, however, 
seem to me to be, intellectually speaking, the most consid¬ 
erable figures that the movement has yet brought forward. 
In any case they pose, for me, the chief questions that stand 
at issue for philosophy, and indeed for man himself, at this 
point in Western history. The fact that certain of these 
thinkers—Heidegger in particular—have disclaimed the 
label of Existentialist should not deter us from reco gnizin g 
in them a well-defined movement. We may remember that 
Kant once protested against the term “idealist” as applied 
to himself—and with good reason; but history in its rough- 
and-ready need for groupings overrode his protest, and as 



an idealist lie now stands classified in all the textbooks— 
and with equally good reason. Perhaps the ungentle hand 
of history is guided by a keener sense of reality than is 
possessed by philosophers themselves, as they squabble 
over the niceties of how they are to be labeled. History 
senses—beneath and beyond all the differences and squab¬ 
bles—the unity of source, of influence, and of milieu; just 
as the reader of this book will sense, I hope, by this time 
that there are certain clearly defined themes and even some 
definite and agreed-upon theses common to all the figures 
we have called Existentialists, and to something that can 
be called existential philosophy. 

The four figures we have considered are, in any case, 
sufficient for our purposes here, where the aim has been 
not to provide a survey or compendium of Existentialism 
but rather to deal with the more central question: What is 
the meaning of Existentialism? Here we are using “mean¬ 
ing” not in its external sense, as a body of more or less or¬ 
ganized information on what these philosophers are talking 
about, but in a more internal sense: What, we have asked, 
is really happening in our own historical existence that it 
should come to expression in this way and in these philoso¬ 
phers? Or—in terms that echo Heidegger—what is happen¬ 
ing within the Being of the West? 

This has been our single theme and subject throughout; 
and it brings us back now to the point from which we 
started, the present situation. 


It may seem strange, particularly to American read¬ 
ers, that rationalism has been made so much of a target 
throughout this book. As a teacher of philosophy, a very 
dubious profession in this country, I am in a position to ob¬ 
serve how precarious a hold the intellect has upon Ameri¬ 
can life; and this is not true merely of the great majority 
of students but of cultured people, of intellectuals, to whom 
here in America a philosophical idea is an alien and em¬ 
barrassing thing. In their actual life Americans are not 


only a non-intellectual but an anti-intellectual people. The 
charm of the American as a new human type, his rough- 
and-ready pragmatism, his spontaneity and openness to ex¬ 
perience are true of him only because he is unreflective by 
nature. The two greatest American writers of the present 
day—Hemingway and Faulkner—are superior artists be¬ 
cause of their power over physical fact, not because of their 
grasp of ideas or of the subtleties of psychology. What 
point, then, do the various animadversions upon rationalism 
—as put forth by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger—have 
for Americans today? Americans are not likely at this point 
to swallow a classical Platonism—to become the dedicated 
priests of godlike reason as philosophers in the tradition of 
Plato became. 

The fact is that a good dose of intellectualism—genuine 
intellectualism—would be a very helpful thing in American 
life. But the essence of the existential protest is that ration¬ 
alism can pervade a whole civilization, to the point where 
the individuals in that civilization do less and less thinking, 
and perhaps wind up doing none at all. It can bring this 
about by dictating the fundamental ways and routines by 
which life itself moves. Technology is one material incarna¬ 
tion of rationalism, since it derives from science; bureauc¬ 
racy is another, since it aims at the rational control and 
ordering of social life; and the two—technology and bu¬ 
reaucracy—have come more and more to rule our lives. 

But it is not so much rationalism as abstractness that is 
the exis t entialis ts* target; and the abstractness of life in this 
technological and bureaucratic age is now indeed some¬ 
thing to reckon with. The last gigantic step forward in the 
spread of technologism has been the development of mass 
art a nd mass media of communication: the machine no 
longer fabricates only material products; it also makes 
minds. Millions of people live by the stereotypes of mass 
art, the most virulent form of abstractness, and their capac¬ 
ity for any kind of human reality is fast disappearing. If 
here and there in the lonely crowd (discovered by Kierke¬ 
gaard long before David Riesman) a face is lit by a human 
gleam, it quickly goes vacant again in the hypnotized stare 



at the TV screen. When an eclipse of the moon was tele¬ 
vised some years ago, E. B. White wrote in The New Yorker 
that he felt some drastic turning point in history had ar¬ 
rived: people could have seen the real thing by looking out 
of their windows, but instead they preferred looking at the 
reflection of it on the screen. Kierkegaard condemned the 
abstractness of his time, calling it an Age of Reflection, but 
what he seems chiefly to have had in mind was the ab¬ 
stractness of the professorial intellectual, seeing not real life 
but the reflection of it in his own mind. We, however, have 
fabricated for our time a new kind of abstractness, on a 
mass scale; through our extraordinary mastery of technique 
we provide a ready-made reflection in place of the real, and 
not for university dons but for the milli ons. Our journey 
into untruth has gone farther than Kierkegaard could have 

To be rational is not the same as to be reasonable. In my 
time I have heard the most hair-raising and crazy things 
from very rational men, advanced in a perfectly rational 
way; no insight or feelings had been used to check the rea¬ 
soning at any point. Nowadays, we accept in our public and 
political life the most humanly unreasonable behavior, pro¬ 
vided it wears a rational mask and speaks in officialese, 
which is the rhetoric of rationality itself. Witness the recent 
announcement that science had been able to perfect a 
“clean” hydrogen bomb—to be sure, not perfectly “dean” 
yet, but “95 per cent clean” or even “96 per cent clean.” 
Of course the quantitative measurement makes the matter 
sound so scientific and rational that people no longer bother 
to ask themselves the human meaning of the whole fhing T 
No doubt, they tell themselves, there must be a perfectly ra¬ 
tional chain of arguments which, starting from the premise 
that there must be hydrogen bombs, leads to the conclusion 
that there must be “clean” hydrogen bombs—otherwise war 
itself would become impossible! The incident makes us sus¬ 
pect that, despite the increase in the rational ordering of 
life in modem times, men have not become the least bit 
more reasonable in the human sense of the word. A perfect 


rationality might not even be incompatible with psychosis; 
it might, in fact, even lead to the latter. 

It may be objected that the fear of what may happen to 
mankind in our time—the specific fear, today, of atomic ex¬ 
termination—is a recurrent thing; man has such fears in ev¬ 
ery age, and yet has managed to survive all his presenti¬ 
ments of disaster. Karl Jaspers cites the complaint of an 
Egyptian of four thousand years ago that things are going 
to rack and ruin in his time: “Robbers abound. . . . No 
one ploughs the land. People are saying: We do not know 
what will happen from day to day.” And Ortega y Gasset 
quotes the lament of the Latin poet Horace, uttered when 
die Roman Empire was at its very height. “We [Horace 
and his contemporaries] are the degenerate descendants of 
fathers who in their turn were degenerate from their fore¬ 
bears.” The harking back to an earlier and better state of 
mankind, to some golden age of the past, is indeed a perpet¬ 
ual tendency of human nature. The present situation must 
always, when we come to see it fully, appear threatening: 
it is a situation, we think, that has to be transformed or 
redeemed. Today is always and for all men the digging of 
one’s way out of the r uins of yesterday. However, it is not 
a question of ra ting our own age lower—or higher—than the 
past; as we have indicated throughout this book, ours is an 
age of unparalleled achievements and power, and in a va¬ 
riety of fields. The question, rather, is one of assessing the 
present in all its uniqueness. If, as the Existentialists hold, 
an authentic life is not handed to us on a platter but involves 
our own act of self-determination (self-finitization) within 
our time and place, then we have got to know and face up 
to that time, both in its threats and its promises. It will not 
do to say that every age has been like this, that man has 
always felt threatened and yet managed to survive. The 
point is precisely that every age is different: each time has 
been unique, both in what it promised and what it threat¬ 
ened; and sometimes the catastrophe has occurred. It is the 
very uniqueness of the present in which we live that affords 
ma n his unprecedented power —including ultimately the 
power to blow hims elf and his planet to bits. But the law 



of opposites, the oldest tragic wisdom of the race, suggests 
that at the very height of his power man is bound to ex¬ 
perience, as Oedipus did, his absolute impotence. There are 
a good many straws in the wind today that point in that 
direction, including the testimony of modem art, as we have 
seen. I for one am personally convinced that man will not 
take his next great step forward until he has drained to the 
lees the bitter cup of his own powerlessness. The trouble 
is, however, that this chastening experience may come only 
with the destruction of his world—a calamity in which the 
tragic hero also destroys himself. That is why all the 
politics-as-usual of today seems so terribly antiquated; it 
lags so sadly behind the actual situation of man—and be¬ 
hind even our present knowledge of man. 

The two chief contestants in the present international sit¬ 
uation are both rooted in the Enlightenment, so far at any 
rate as their respective civilizations reflect any general con¬ 
ception of man. The uniqueness of the United States is that 
it is a nation that was founded at a certain time in history 
in the full light of historical consciousness; it did not grow 
out of the soil of its own prehistory. Moreover, it was 
founded in the eighteenth century in the very heyday of 
the E n ligh t enment, and by men who participated in the 
clear rationality of that period. The soil of America ap¬ 
peared to the American as an alien wilderness to be con¬ 
quered, something inimical, set over against himself, not as 
something out of which he himself and his institutions had, 
so to speak, grown. Lacking the roots the European has, in 
prehistory and the chthonic unconscious, the American 
shows an admirable freedom and flexibility in conscious¬ 
ness, particularly of a practical kind. But with this goes also 
that celebrated American “innocence"—a quality which in 
philosophical terms is simply an ignorance of how question¬ 
able a being man really is and which strikes the European 
as alien and possibly even somewhat disingenuous. Hence, 
the ineptness of the American in handling the h uman side 
of foreign politics, and his inability to understand why his 
European allies should look at him askance and question 
his generosity and good will. Sartre recounts a conversation 



he had with an American while visiting in this country. The 
American insisted that all international problems could be 
solved if men would just get together and be rational; Sartre 
disagreed and after a while discussion between them be¬ 
came impossible. “I believe in the existence of evil,” says 
Sartre, “and he does not.” What the American has not yet 
become aware of is the shadow that surrounds all human 

The philosophy of the other contestant—to look on its best 
and most “idealistic” side, a side that still enlists the enthu¬ 
siasm of millions of men—is Marxist humanism. This hu¬ 
manism harks back to the justly celebrated statement of 
Marx: “To be radical is to go to the root of the question. 
Now the root of mankind is maxi? Marx here speaks as a 
member of the generation of Feuerbach and the young He¬ 
gelians, those who turned against Hegel and his Idea of the 
State and toward the concrete man, the historical creature 
of flesh and blood. This actual and historical man, they said, 
is to be the root of mankind, the root of society and the 
state. But there is a further question that this leaves un¬ 
asked: In what is the individual man to be rooted? The 
thoroughly problematic nature of man, this highly question¬ 
able and self-questioning animal, is conveniently and fate¬ 
fully dropped out of sight. Marx turned his attention to the 
social problem, ass umin g that the only thing in the way of 
man’s c oming into his full humanity was the capitalist sys¬ 
tem. In this he was simply echoing the Enlightenment’s 
optimistic assumption that, since man is a rational animal, 
the only obstacles to his fulfillment must be objective and 
social ones. Communism, following Marx, has thus always 
exhibited a strange ambivalence: the most naively optimis¬ 
tic view of human nature in theory, and in practice the most 
brutal and cynical attitude toward human beings. 

Marxism is the ideology of Communism; but in fact and 
in its actual historical unfolding, the real philosopher of 
Communism, or what Communism has become, is Nietz¬ 
sche, as we have seen. The question of power has become 
paramount; it usurps everything else, as is shown in the 
recent remarkable book by Milovan Djilas, The New Class. 



The collective effort to master nature, to have power over 
things, requires that men have power over other men; and 
the movement ends by thinking of the men underneath 
merely as things, for its thinking has long since discarded 
all the categories that recognize the humanity of the person 
and his subjectivity. The historical turning point in this case 
was Lenin, the practical genius and the St. Paul of the Com¬ 
munist movement. Before returning from exile in 1917, 
Lenin had written a little pamphlet, State and Revolution, 
in which he dealt with human nature in terms of the most 
naive and utopian rationalism; but as soon as he was back 
in Russia and engaged in actual politics there was one, and 
only one, question before his mind as an active politician; 
power. Marxist manuals of philosophy refer to all philoso¬ 
phies that deal with the human subject as forms of “irra¬ 
tionalism.” Their rationalism, of course, consists in technical 
intelligence, in the power over things (and over men con¬ 
sidered simply as things); and this exalting of the technical 
intelligence over every other human attribute becomes de¬ 
moniacal in action, as recent history has shown. 

Behind the problem of politics, in the present age, lies 
the problem of man, and this is what makes all thinking 
about contemporary problems so thorny and difficult. The 
intellectual collapse that occurred in this country after the 
decade of the i93o’s, when our intellectuals had been able 
to submerge themselves totally in a program of political ac¬ 
tion, shows that philosophy can no longer be considered a 
mere appendage to politics. On the contrary, anyone who 
wishes to meddle in politics today had better come to some 
prior conclusions as to what man is and what, in the end, 
human life is all about. I say “in the end” deliberately be¬ 
cause the neglect of first and of last things does not—as 
so-called “practical” people hope—go unpunished, but has 
a disastrous way of coming in the back door and upsetting 
everything. The speeches of our politicians show no recog¬ 
nition of this; and yet in the hands of these men, on both 
sides of the Atlantic, lies the catastrophic power of atomic 

Existentialism is the counter-Enhghtenment come at last 



to philosophic expression; and it demonstrates beyond any¬ 
thing else that the ideology of the Enlightenment is thin, 
abstract, and therefore dangerous. (I say its “ideology,” for 
the practical task of the Enlightenment is still with us: In 
everyday life we must continue to be critics of a social order 
that is still based everywhere on oppression, injustice, and 
even savagery—such being the peculiar tension of mind that 
we as responsible human beings have to maintain today.) 
The finitude of man, as established by Heidegger, is per¬ 
haps the death blow to the ideology of the Enlightenment, 
for to recognize this finitude is to acknowledge that man 
will always exist in untruth as well as truth. Utopians who 
still look forward to a future when all shadows will be dis¬ 
persed and m ankin d will dwell in a resplendent Crystal Pal¬ 
ace will find this recognition disheartening. But on second 
thought, it may not be such a bad thing to free ourselves 
once and for all from the worship of the idol of progress; 
for utopianism—whether the brand of Marx or of Nietzsche 
—by locating the meaning of man in the future leaves hu¬ 
man beings here and now, as well as all mankind up to this 
point, without their own meaning. If man is to be given 
meaning, the Existentialists have shown us, it must be here 
and now; and to think this insight through is to recast the 
whole tradition of Western thought. The realization that all 
human truth must not only shine against an enveloping 
darkness, but that such truth is even shot through with its 
own darkness may be depressing, and not only to Utopians. 
But it has the virtue of restoring to man his sense of the 
primal mystery surrounding all things, a sense of mystery 
from which the glittering world of his technology estranges 
him, but without which he is not truly human. 


Tn comparison with traditional philosophy, or with other 
contemporary schools of philosophy. Existentialism, as we 
have seen, seeks to bring the whole man—the concrete in¬ 
dividual in the whole context of his everyday life, and in 
his total mystery and questionableness—into philosophy. 



This is attempted with varying degrees of success by the 
different Existentialists; but the attempt itself, even if it did 
not succeed at all, would be necessary and valuable for our 
time. In modem philosophy particularly (philosophy since 
Descartes), man has figured almost exclusively as an epis¬ 
temological subject—as an intellect that registers sense-data, 
makes propositions, reasons, and seeks the certainty of in¬ 
tellectual knowledge, but not as the man underneath all 
this, who is bom, suffers, and dies. Naturally, the attempt 
to see the whole or integral man, in place of the rational 
or epistemological fragment of him, involves our taking a 
look at some unpleasant things. Nowadays there is much 
glib talk, particularly in this country, about “the whole 
man,” or “the well-rounded individual,” the terms evoking, 
in this context, only the pleasant prospect of graciously en¬ 
larging the Self by taking extension courses, developing 
constructive hobbies, or taking an active part in social move¬ 
ments. But the whole man is not whole without such un¬ 
pleasant things as death, anxiety, guilt, fear and trembling, 
and despair, even though journalists and the populace have 
shown what they think of these things by labeling any 
philosophy that looks at such aspects of human life as 
“gloomy” or “merely a mood of despair.” We are still so 
rooted in the Enlightenment—or uprooted in it—that these 
unpleasant aspects of life are like the Furies for us: hostile 
forces from which we would escape. And of course the 
easiest way to escape the Furies, we think, is to deny that 
they exist. It seems to me no accident at all that modem 
depth psychology has come into prominence in the same 
period as Existentialism and for the same reason: namely, 
that certain unpleasant things the Enlightenment had 
dropped into the limbo of the unconscious have begun to 
backfire and have forced themselves finally upon the atten¬ 
tion of modem man. 

This is not the first time man has been faced with the 
problem of placating the Furies. At the very dawn of West¬ 
ern history the Greeks went through a similar experience, 
the record of which has been left us in the great Oresteia 
trilogy of Aeschylus; a record in which we can also read a 



prophecy of our own conflict (with differences) as well as 
the only reasonable proposal for its solution (with dif¬ 

Clytemnestra, in the tragedy, has killed her husband 
Agamemnon; and Orestes, their son, is directed by Apollo, 
an extremely promasculine deity, to avenge his father s 
murder. Orestes kills his mother and is immediately set 
upon by the Furies, the old goddesses of night and earth 
who were responsible for the protection of the lines of blood 
and who therefore must punish the son who murders his 
mother; as the perpetrator of the most horrible crime man 
can imagine. Up to a point the drama revolves around hu¬ 
man beings, with the gods of course always in the back¬ 
ground; but when we come to the last play of the trilogy, 
the Eumenides , in which Orestes meets his final ordeal, the 
gods themselves take the center of the stage, and Orestes, 
the human bearer of the conflict, is dwarfed in their shadow. 
The conflict is now between Apollo, the new god—and the 
god of the Enlightenment—on the one hand and the Furies, 
the old matriarchal goddesses of the family and the soil, on 
the other. Apollo is protecting Orestes, and the Furies seek 
his destruction. There ensues a trial between the rival 
deities on the hill of the Acropolis at Athens; the verdict of 
the jury, comprised of citizens, will set Orestes free or hand 
him over irremediably to the Furies. 

The modem reader who skims the play too hastily may 
get the impression that this trial is a rather prosaic piece of 
legalism, hardly worthy of the sublime drama that has pre¬ 
ceded it; but for the Greek this trial was as intense and 
dramatic as the more sensational scene in which Orestes 
murders his mother—was, in fact, the nub of the whole mat¬ 
ter. Aeschylus’ tragedy records the moment in Greek history 
at which the old matriarchal deities were superseded by 
the new patriarchal gods of Olympus; but the average 
Greek citizen still remembered the older deities and he was 
still a little bit uneasy forced to choose between old and 
new. Thus at the very beginning of the Eumenides we are 
told by the Pythian priestess that the first prophetess or 
seer among the gods was old Mother Earth herself; it was 



only very lately that Apollo had come to occupy the tem¬ 
ples of the oracles throughout Greece. This development 
from the old matriarchal to the new patriarchal deities 
parallels the development of Greek consciousness itself, as 
it advanced in civilization and enlightenment The question 
of the play, thus interpreted, becomes: What kind of 
tribute will this advanced consciousness have to pay to the 
old earth-bound unconscious? 

The vote of the citizen jurors is a tie; and Orestes (as 
was the Greek rule) is allowed to go free. The tying vote 
has been cast by Athena herself, an ambiguous female 
deity, in spirit halfway between man and woman. The 
Furies wail disconsolately and threaten all kinds of destruc¬ 
tion on the land. They are placated, however, by being told 
that they shall not be entirely displaced by this new up¬ 
start of enlightenment, Apollo; they are to be given a re¬ 
vered place, a sanctuary, and every child bom of woman 
shall be bom into their protection. The goddess Athena, 
who was bom out of the brain of Zeus, in allotting this final 
justice to the Furies, acknowledges that they are older and 
wiser than she. 

It would be a mistake to take this as merely a cool barter, 
a quid pro quo . Greek religion was in deadly earnest here, 
and perhaps it was never wiser. The Furies are really to 
be revered and not simply bought off; in fact, they cannot 
be bought off (not even by our modem tranquilizers and 
sleeping pills) but are to be placated only through being 
given their just and due respect. They are the darker side 
of life, but in their own way as holy as the rest. Indeed, 
without them there would be no experience of the holy at 
all. Without the shudder of fear or the trembling of dread 
man would never be brought to stand face to face with 
himself or his life; he would only drift aimlessly off into the 
insubstantial realm of Laputa. 

Aeschylus* tragedy speaks to us in an archaic language, 
but it does speak, and directly. We are the children of an 
enlightenment, one which we would like to preserve; but 
we can do so only by making a pact with the old goddesses. 
The centuries-long evolution of human reason is one of 



man’s greatest triumphs, but it is still in process, still in¬ 
complete, still to be. Contrary to the rationalist tradition, 
we now know that it is not his reason that makes man man, 
but rather that reason is a consequence of that which really 
makes him man. For it is mans existence as a self-transcend¬ 
ing self that has forged and formed reason as one of its 
projects. As such, man’s reason is specifically human (but 
no more and no less than his art and his religion) and to 
be revered. All the values that have been produced in the 
course of the long evolution of reason—everything that goes 
under the heading of liberalism, intelligence, a decent and 
reasonable view of life—we wish desperately to preserve and 
enlarge, in the turmoil of modem life. But do we need to 
be persuaded now, after all that has happened in this 
twentieth century, how precariously situated these reasona¬ 
ble ideals are in relation to the subterranean forces of life, 
and how small a segment of the whole and concrete man 
they actually represent? We have to establish a working 
pact between that segment and the whole of us; but a pact 
requires compromise, in which both sides concede some¬ 
thing, and in this case particularly the rationalism of the 
Enlightenment will have to recognize that at the very heart 
of its light there is also a darkness. 

It would be the final error of reason—the point at which 
it succumbs to its own hubris and passes over into its 
demoniacal opposite, unreason—to deny that the Furies 
exist, or to strive to manipulate them out of existence. Noth¬ 
ing can be accomplished by denying that man is an es¬ 
sentially troubled being, except to make more trouble. We 
may, of course, be able to buy off the Furies for a while; 
being of the earth and ancient, they have been around 
much longer than the rational consciousness that would en¬ 
tirely supplant them, and so they can afford to wait. And 
when they strike, more likely than not it will be through 
the offending faculty itself. It is notorious that brilliant peo¬ 
ple are often the most dense about their own human blind 
spot, precisely because their intelligence, so clever in other 
things, conceals it from them; multiply this situation a thou¬ 
sandfold, and you have a brilliant scientific and technologi- 



cal civilization that could run amuck out of its own sheer 
uprooted cleverness. The solution proposed by Greek tragic 
wisdom through the drama of Aeschylus may not, then, be 
as frightening as we imagine: in giving the Furies their 
place, we may come to recognize that they are not such 
alien presences as we think in our moments of evading 
them. In fact, far from being alien, they are part of our¬ 
selves, like all gods and demons. The conspiracy to forget 
them, or to deny that they exist, thus turns out to be only 
one more contrivance in that vast and organized effort by 
modem society to flee from the self. 


Appendix I 

Nothing is more real than nothing. 


In Ernest Hemingway's Winner Take Nothing (1933) 
there is one story, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” that 
could be meditated on very profitably by contemporary 
philosophers. Toward the end of it Hemingway gives the 
interior monologue of his hero, a waiter in a caf6 some¬ 
where in Spain, in these words: 

Turning off the electric light he continued the conver¬ 
sation with himself . . . what did he fear? It was not 
fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. 
It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was 
only that and light was all it needed and a certain clean¬ 
ness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he 
knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. 
Our nada, who are in nada, nada be thy name thy king¬ 
dom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is nada. Give 
us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we 
nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver 
us from nada; pues nada. 

* This paper was read at a meeting of the American Philo¬ 
sophical Association, December 29 , 1957* It deals, independently 
of Heidegger, with the meaning of the negative in experience, 
and can thus be taken as further elucidation of the matters dis¬ 
cussed in Chapter 9 . 



Hail nothing, full of nothing, nothing is with 

thee. . . . 

The almost antiphonal repetition of “nada,” the Spanish 
word for nothing, and the blasphemous transformation of 
two traditional Christian prayers into invocations to this 
Nothing may make the ordinary reader gag. Indeed the pas¬ 
sage usually provokes the stock cry of “Nihilism 1 ”—the label 
by which we seek to dismiss out of hand the kind of ex¬ 
perience Hemingway is reporting. But in its context the pas¬ 
sage is in no way sensational; in rhythm and tone it fits in 
perfectly with the whole story, which though brief (eight 
pages) is one of Hemingway’s best and one of his most 
courageous too, for in it he names the presence that had 
circulated, unnamed and unconfronted, through and be¬ 
hind much of his earlier writing. The passage itself only 
names what the story as a whole work of art reveals: the 
presence that Hemingway and his hero experience—a pres¬ 
ence that is fully as real as the lights and shadows of the 
caf6, and the solid objects in it, tables, chairs, and human 
bodies—is Nothing. 

It is at this that the philosophic reader is likely to gag. 
Can this Nothing really be a datum? The question of what 
is and what is not given in experience is a thorny one; and 
though philosophers today may admit it is thornier than 
they used to ima gi n e, they are likely to slam the door pretty 
sharply against the kind of datum Hemingway is trying to 
present. Sense-data are given, some philosophers say; per¬ 
ceptual objects are given, say others; but however they may 
squabble among themselves over such matters, they will 
end up joining forces against such a strange negative entity 
as that to which Hemingway testifies here. 

He is a pretty lucid witness too. His words undercut the 
common objection that all that is involved here is a “mere 
mood” (as if moods were mere passiones animae, modifica¬ 
tions inhering in a psychic substance, in tie Cartesian 
sense). “It was not fear or dread,” he tells us. “It was a 
nothing that he knew too well.” Fear and dread are moods; 
but what is in question for the character in the story is 


not a mood, but a presence that he knows and knows all 
too well. So far as the mood of Hemingway’s story is con¬ 
cerned, it is in no way frantic, despairing, or “nih i l i stic.” 
Rather, its tone is one of somber and clear courage. 

As a matter of fact, human moods and reactions to the 
encounter with No thingn ess vary considerably from person 
to person, and from culture to culture. The Chinese Taoists 
found the Great Void tranquilizing, peaceful, even joyful. 
For the Bud dhis ts in India, the idea of Nothing evoked a 
mood of universal compassion for all creatures caught in 
the toils of an existence that is ultimately groundless. In the 
traditional culture of Japan the idea of Nothingness per¬ 
vades the exquisite modes of aesthetic feeling displayed in 
painting, architecture, and even the ceremonial rituals of 
daily life. But Western man, up to his neck in things, ob¬ 
jects, and the business of mastering them, recoils with 
anxiety from any possible encounter with Nothingness and 
labels talk of it as “negative”—which is to say, morally rep¬ 
rehensible. Clearly, then, the moods with which men react 
to this Nothing vary according to time, place, and cultural 
conditioning; but what is at issue here is not the mood with 
which one ought to confront such a presence, but the 
reality of the presence itself. 

It is now a good many years since Husserl set forth the 
motto, “Zu den Sachen seTbst” “To the things themselves,” 
as an exhortation to philosophers to bring themselves closer 
to the sources of experience. To do so is very hard for phi¬ 
losophers: they come to experience with too many intel¬ 
lectual preconceptions. Artists are better at it. It is, after 
all, what the artist is paid to do: to be attentive to experi¬ 
ence. If Hemingway had read Heidegger, or if he were 
Jean-Paul Sartre, writing his story out of some intellectual 
parti pris, then his tes tim ony in this case would be suspect, 
at least initially. But Hemingway is not an intellectual, far 
from it; and the unique style he has forged for himself—a 
style which at the period of this story had not yet begun 
to parody itself—sprang from an urge to report truly, to set 
things straight for the reader, to get, in Husserl’s phrase, to 
the things themselves. He is at the outset a credible witness. 



Artist and thinker have stood in hidden opposition since 
the very dawn of Western philosophy. Plato’s condemna¬ 
tion of Homer was, in the end, not so much moral as meta¬ 
physical, as Plato himself acknowledged. The truth the 
artist reveals eludes the conceptual structure of the philoso¬ 
pher. Hence it is no truth, for the latter, but untruth. (In 
the very late dialogue, The Sophist , Plato, as we may re¬ 
member, classes the poets with the Sophists as merchants 
of non-Being.) There is, however, another approach open 
to the philosopher: In the face of the recalcitrant data set 
forth by the artist, the thinker may choose to let thought 
rethink itself, to let it stand in more open and living con¬ 
tact with what is given. Hemingway*s story may seem a 
tiny thing to pit against the central tradition of Western 
thought, but one has to take the experience of the real 
where one finds it; genuine witnesses to experience are so 
few and far between that we cannot afford not to listen 
to one, even at the discomfort of having to think in a way 
that is unfa m ilia r to us. And a breach anywhere in the 
traditional way of thinking, in this case about the negative, 
may lead us to re-examine that tradition wholly. 


In Metaphysics, Delta, 7, Aristotle lists, among others, 
the following meanings of Being, to on, that -which-is: 

(1) Being is that which is divided by the ten categories 
[i.e., that which is is either a substance, or a quality 
(of a substance), or a quantity (of a substance), 
or a relation (of substances), etc.]. 

(2) Being is that which si gnifi es the truth of a propo¬ 

Medieval thinkers (and I believe they were quite ac¬ 
curate in their reading of Aristotle) made this passage the 
basis for a distinction between (1) ens rede, real Being, 
and (2) ensraMonis, conceptual Being. (1) The first term 
defines a real entity as that which has actual and positive 
existence as an object in the world—ultimately, a p rimar y 


substance or one of its attributes or relations. (2) The sec¬ 
ond sense includes entities that do not have real and positive 
existence in the first sense. Thus, if I can assert a true propo¬ 
sition about a non-existing thing, then in some sense it has 
Being, since it is not a pure non-entity. “A centaur is half 
man, half horse” is a true proposition; and obviously a 
centaur is an entity of some kind, though not a really ex¬ 
istent one. A centaur is an entity about which at least one 
true proposition may be uttered. Since propositions do not 
exist without minds to interpret them, the centaur is an ens 
rationis—a. conceptual or mental entity. 

In the light of this distinction, the medieval tradition 
treats all negative entities (including privations) as entia 
rationis, conceptual entities. The example of a privation 
used by St. Thomas is blindness. Blindness is not an ens 
reale; die eye is real, and the cataract or other substance 
that may grow over it to cause blindness is real; but the 
blindness itself, the not-seeing, is an entity only in the sense 
that the proposition “The eye does not see” is true—that is, 
asserts what is the case if we happen to be talking about 
a blind man. 

Perhaps the cogency of this position may be made 
clearer by another illustration. I remove everything from my 
table top except a stone paperweight. Both the table and 
the stone are real entities, things that have actual and posi¬ 
tive existence. Now, the following is true: 

(x) There is a stone on the table. 

If I now remove the stone from the table, the following be¬ 
comes true: 

(2) The stone is not on the table, 

(2') The stone is absent from the table. 

The absence of the stone is a fact; but this means nothing 
more t han that the preceding propositions (2) and (2') 
are true. If I took to groping around on the table to lay 
hold of this absence-of-stone, I would be making a fool of 
myself both practically and intellectually. The absence-of- 



the-stone-from-the-table is an entity that exists only in the 
mind: I have seen the stone on the table, I expect it to be 
there and it is not, and I think: The stone is not now on 
the table. 

Here common sense speaks in all its l umin ous simp licity. 
This way of thought, laid down by Aristotle in his Meta¬ 
physics and continued by the Schoolmen, was the frame- 
work within which the seventeenth-century founders of 
modem philosophy still thought. It is today the persistent 
and consistent tradition within which Western man thinks 
about Being and its negatives. It is remarkable that Carnap, 
in an essay published in Erkennis in 1931 (“The Conquest 
of Metaphysics Through the Logical Analysis of Lan¬ 
guage”), seeking to show that Heidegger’s conception of 
Das Nichts , Nothing, follows from a misuse of language, 
still follows the argument of the preceding paragraph. 
Carnap makes use of the logistical apparatus, but the es¬ 
sential direction of his thinking is the same as that of St. 
Thomas in the opening pages of De Ente et Essentia. At 
first glance, Carnap and St. Thomas may seem very strange 
bedfellows, but on second thought we should not be sur¬ 
prised; Positivism belongs, after all, to the Western tradi¬ 
tion, and when it t h i n ks about Being, or systematically 
avoids th inking about it, both the thinking and the avoid¬ 
ance of thinking take place wholly within this tradition. But 
by keeping its gaze riveted on minute logical matters that 
lie in the foreground, Positivism can let these preconcep¬ 
tions sink so far into the background that they can be for¬ 
gotten and even denied to be there. 

But common sense, however logical and sound, is after 
all only one human attitude among many others; and like 
everything hu m a n it may have its limitations—or negative 
side. No matter how massive this tradition that locates real 
Being exclusively in the positively existing object, we must 
be ready to put it to the phenomenological test of our own 
experience, however humble or grubby. 

Let us see, then, about this blindness: 

One fine morning a man wakes up blind. One day we 
are bom, one day we die; one day, for some people, we go 


blind. Perhaps, in fact, we should not say “a man/' The 
term removes this man, at the outset, into a more remote 
realm of objects, where his personal being is shed drop by 
drop like a face losing contour at a distance. I, you, go— 
this man goes blind. That is better, for it suggests a little 
more tha t this is happening to some single human person. 
Well, then, this man has suddenly gone blind. He has fallen 
into a great black pit, his whole life has been swallowed 
up in a darkness. Non-seeing, a privation, has descended on 
him with more crushing effect than a brick from a rooftop. 
Roaring with ang uish, he crashes and stumbles about his 
room. A doctor arrives and examines his eyes. If the doctor 
philosophizes in the manner of Aristotle, St. Thomas, or 
Carnap, he will observe: the eyes are real, and the growth 
over the eyes is a real substance, but the non-seeing of the 
eye is itself not an object and therefore not an ens redle, 
a real entity. And if doctors still know Latin or if this one 
has a slig ht touch of Moliere, he may even pompously and 
soothingly quote St Thomas: * Caecitas non hdbet esse in 
rebus” (Blindness has no being in things). For my part, I 
rather hope this doctor is not able to get out of the room 
fast eno ug h to avoid the blind man s fury. His language, for 
all its Latin gravity, is humanly frivolous; and what is 
humanly frivolous ought to be somehow and somewhere 
philosophically wrong too. 

What, so far as philosophy is concerned, is happening 
in this situation? Nothing less than this: In the traditional 
way of thought a chasm has opened between subject and 
object, between Being considered as that-which-is, a posi¬ 
tively e xisting object, and Being as the mode of being of a 
subject; blindness observed from without and blindness ex¬ 
perienced from within. For the man who has gone blind 
his b lindne ss may very well be the ens realissirfium—ox , 
more accurately, the esse or non-esse tedlissimum—oi his 

Here, in the tradition, two notions—negativity and sub¬ 
jectivity—have become essentially linked, with the latter ac¬ 
corded at most a derivative and questionable status. That 
mode of thought which perpetually stands outside and 



looks for the object cannot bring into thought the subjec¬ 
tivity of the subject. This subjectivity of the subject has 
nothing to do with “subjectivism” in any of the skeptical 
forms that have bedeviled modem philosophy since Des¬ 
cartes. The subjectivity of the subject is a reality within the 
world. The world contains stones, plants, animals , planets, 
stars—and also subjects living out their own subjectivity. 

Human finitude is the presence of the not in the being of 
man. That mode of thought which cannot understand nega¬ 
tive existence cannot fully understand human finitude. Fini¬ 
tude is a matter of human limitations, and limit atio ns in¬ 
volve what we can not do or cannot be. Our finitude, 
however, is not the mere sum of our limitations; rather, the 
fact of human finitude brings us to the center of where 
positive and negative existence coincide and interpenetrate 
to such an extent that a man’s strength coincides with his 
pathos, his vision with his blindness, his truth with his un¬ 
truth, his being with his non-being. And if human finitude 
is not understood, neither is the nature of man. 


Traditional ontology has always been carried out in con¬ 
nection with theology, and in the actual systems in the West 
this has always meant theodicy, a justification of the per¬ 
fection of God and His universe. The classical theory of 
privations fits into this historical frame. It was in fact linked 
with the effort to solve the problem of evil, which is why, 
though the theory exists in germ in Aristotle, it was elabo¬ 
rated fully only by the later Christian Aristotelians. If evil 
is essentially negative in nature, a privatio boni or privation 
of the good, and if privations have only mental and not 
real being, then evil becomes an illusory shadow, expunged 
from the perfection of God’s universe. So the seed was 
planted from which grew the tradition of making negative 
existence into a reality that is sublimated, mediated, aufge- 
hoben , or otherwise made to disappear by a metaphysical 
trick of passe-passe. The human motives for the ontological 
prejudice are thus abundantly clear. 


But this prejudice was, in turn, to provide the main out¬ 
line for the theory of human nature. If we take as repre¬ 
sentative of this tradition Aristotle’s treatment of man in the 
Ethics (and elsewhere in his works), St. Thomas’ De 
Homine, Descartes’ Treatise on the Passions , Spinoza on 
the emotions, then the unity of these thinkers begins to ap¬ 
pear, to us today, much more significant than their diver¬ 
gences, however considerable. For all of them, man is an 
object, one object amid that hierarchy of objects that is 
nature; an object, moreover, with a fixed nature or essence 
that assigns him his precise place in that hierarchy, which 
latter, perfect though it may be, depends in turn upon the 
plenitude of God’s being. Whatever any of these thinkers 
wrote about man was, then, simply the product of an ex¬ 
ceptional intelligence reasoning about the essence of an 
object; none of this reasoning required—and indeed showed 
no trace of—that fateful and sometimes dreadful experience 
which we know as the encounter with the Self. Each of 
them could have written exactly as he did if he had only 
thought and never lived. This, at least, cannot be said 
against Kierkegaard and Nietzsche—which may be one very 
good reason why contemporary thinking about man will 
have to start from these two. 

Idealism might seem to have been a great exception to 
this general tradition, since it brought subjectivity into phi¬ 
losophy, giving it a role that it had not previously had in 
Western thought. But the "subject” that idealism intro¬ 
duced into philosophy was only the epistemological sub¬ 
ject, not the concrete human subject: it was the mind, that 
is, with its restrictive conditions for the formation of con¬ 
cepts and systems, not the concrete person in the radical 
finitude of his existence. And idealism ended by becoming 
objective idealism , the adjective revealing that the ultimate 
concern was once again with the nature of the object, with 
ens rather than with esse. The root of idealism’s difference 
with materialism remained unchanged; it was content 
merely with turning the tables on its adversary and finding 
the nature of the object to be mind-stuff rather than matter- 
stuff. Hegel appears to be dealing with negativity and 



finitude, to a greater extent than any philosopher before 
him; certainly he flaunts the terms, at least. But it was only 
flaunting . Hegel was in the end the most arrogant spokes¬ 
man for the classical tradition, since everything negative, 
fragmentary, incomplete, partial-in a word, human-gets 
transfigured in his System and is absorbed into the plenitude 
of the Absolute. The image of man that Hegel projects is 
a glorified one, perhaps, but it is also a travesty of our 
actual hu m an experience, and therefore, finally, insulting. 

But surely, it may be said, this tradition is no longer 
powerful or operative; we live in a non-metaphysical, or 
even anti-metaphysical age, and there is no need to expend 
energy flogging a dead horse. Habits of thought are per¬ 
sistent things, however, and retain their identity through 
many strange metamorphoses. Those who would interpret 
man as an object of one kind or another seem to find a kin¬ 
ship that crosses all philosophical boundaries. Thus it is re¬ 
ported that some Jesuits have got together with Co mmunis t 
philosophers on the other side of the Iron Curtain, to seek 
a rapprochement between Marxism and Thomism. No 
doubt, each side secretly thinks it will devour the other; 
but it is significant that St. Thomas may be digestible to 
Communism where Kierkegaard would be absolute anath¬ 
ema; these Communist philosophers repudiate any attempt 
to deal philosophically with human subjectivity, as being 
a symptom of bourgeois decadence. On this side of the Cur¬ 
tain, in America, the vogue is rather to interpret man from 
the point of view of the behavioral sciences, in the light of 
scientific objectivity: man is no longer reduced to a meta¬ 
physical object, as in the classical tradition, but to a 
scientific object. Nineteenth-century naturalism attempted 
to give us man as a physicochemical object; and as natu¬ 
ralistic thought has become more flexible and subtle, in this 
century, we have had successively man as a biological ob¬ 
ject, as a biologicosocial object, as an anthropological ob¬ 
ject, and now, with some of the younger generation of 
naturalists, man as a psychoanalytic object. 

seem to me two objections—one practical, one in 
principle—to the attempt to interpret man in his totality 
from the point of view of the behavioral sciences. First, 


these sciences are as yet very youthful, and very poorly 
provided with reliable general conclusions. If, honoring the 
requirements of the severely scientific conscience, we re¬ 
strict ourselves to the reliable results now afforded by these 
sciences, we shall have a picture of only a tiny fragment 
of man. And while we wish very much that these sciences 
may develop, in the meantime we have to live, and this 
means that we must be guided by some general idea of 
what man is all about. Every age, as Andr6 Malraux has 
shown, projects its own image of man in its art; and even 
if it has no art, it will live by such an image, sometimes 
expressed but more often veiled. If the philosopher hands 
over to the behavioral sciences the task of philosophical 
anthropology, it does not mean that he is without any total 
image of but only that the image is more likely to be 
unconscious. When philosophers today deal with human 
matters, as in ethics, even though they are apparently only 
doing so through the logical analysis of value statements, I 
think it can always be shown that there are, concealed 
within the analysis, presuppositions as to the nature of man. 

The second objection—one of principle—to the view of 
the behavioral sciences is that they must be perpetually in¬ 
complete. From what has been established in our time 
about the incompleteness of mathematics, the most rigor¬ 
ous of all the sciences, we know that such vague and com¬ 
plex gmalgamg (not yet systems) as the behavioral sciences 
can never even pretend to completeness; consequently man 
as a totality will always elude their grasp. Any attempt to 
interpret man completely from the view of these sciences 
is bound to be reductive in nature. 

Indeed, it is hard for even the most well-intentioned of 
sociologists and anthropologists to avoid slipping into such 
a reduction—as we can see whenever they are led to gen¬ 
eralize about more complex social entities, such as, say, 
American civilization, whose meaning is part of our own 
subjectivity. The primitives, if they could read what the 
anthropologists say about them, m ight have the same dif¬ 
ficulty in reco gnizing themselves. The problem is especially 
acute, in fact, when the behavioral scientists are dealing 
with primitives who have risen to the level of producing 



great art, such as Benin and Bantu sculpture. These primi¬ 
tive artists already occupy a domain of being that we can 
enter only as art, and whose meaning we cannot grasp so 
long as we stand outside it and systematically catalogue ob¬ 
jects, artifacts, and materials. The one science of man that 
has attempted anything like an understanding of the total 
human personality is psychoanalysis, a field that must be 
distinguished from its suspicious neighbor, academic psy¬ 
chology, which restricts itself to a relatively tiny part of 
man’s being. But it is psychoanalysis that has undergone 
violent cleavages into schools and is currently experiencing 
the deepest crisis over fundamentals, a crisis that has in the 
end to be evaluated by philosophy since its issues are 
philosophical, a principal one—that between Freud, Adler, 
and Jung—being precisely the nature and scope of human 

More important, however, than any of the theories of 
man held by philosophers is the actual image of man in 
terms of which the historical epoch lives and plays out its 
destiny. Such an image of man may be derived in part from 
the theories of philosophers, but more often than not it is 
the product of historical forces that tend to be unconscious 
because they are so massive. The phenomena of mass 
society and the collectivization of man are facts so decisive 
for our age that all conflicts among political forms and 
among leaders take place upon and within this basis. Col¬ 
lectivization proceeds by reducing man to an object in 
functional interplay with other objects (men), returning 
him ironically enough in some sense to his primitive status 
as a natural object in use, from which history long ago dis¬ 
entangled him. Collective being is becoming the style of our 
epoch, despite our Sunday-morning lip service to the ideals 
of the dignity and value of the individuaL Subjectivity is 
already considered a criminal offense under to talitarianism, 
a morbid excrescence by our own Philistinism. Against such 
threatening historical weather, that subjectivity takes on 
the human dignity of revolt; the reality of the negative 
shows itself in man’s power to say No. 


Appendix II 

That existence is not a genuine predicate has been one of 
the more entrenched dogmas of Positivism and Analytic 
Philosophy; yet in some quarters recently the question 
seems to have been reopened. The question indeed deserves 
a fresh look on the part of analytic philosophers; and for 
this purpose we may as well begin with the classical state¬ 
ment on the matter given by Kant in his Critique of Pure 
Reason—& statement that has seemed decisive for most 
modem philosophers after him. 

“Being, 70 Kant say s, “is evidently not a real predicate, or 
a concept of something that can be added to the concept 
of a thing.” That is: if I think of a thing and then think of 
that same thing as existing, my second concept does not 
add any observable property to the first, and therefore—so 
far as its conceptual or strictly representative content is con¬ 
cerned—I am thinking the same thought in both cases. The 
existing thing and the merely possible thing are, qua 
thing, one and the same. And Kant’s example here has be¬ 
come quite as famous as his declaration of general princi¬ 
ple: the concept of a hundred real dollars, he tells us, and 
of a hundred merely possible dollars are, as concepts, one 
and the same—there is not one cent more or less in the 
one than the other. The concept, as such, is existentially 

It is worth while to pause for a moment over this rather 
remarkable example, which is quite typical of the candor 
with which this great thinker is often likely to bring up as 



examples just those that are most embarrassing to the case 
he would like to establish. For here he has chosen a most 
pointedly existential illustration—at least for most of us who 
at one time or another have felt the abysmal difference be¬ 
tween real and merely possible dollars when we have put 
our hand into our pocket to find it unexpectedly and em¬ 
barrassingly empty. Kant is candid enough to admit this 
fact: “In my financial position,” he says, “no doubt there 
exists more by one hundred dollars than by their concept 
only.” But why this grudging concession to the earthy fact 
of one’s financial position, almost by way of incidental 
footnote, as if money were something that had only a very 
accidental relation to one’s financial position and were not 
essentially something that has to do with making us richer 
or poorer—richer by its existence in our pockets and poorer 
by its absence? The ordinary citizen, who feels the pinch 
of meeting bills and knows very well the difference between 
a hundred merely possible dollars (of which he may 
dream) and a hundred real dollars (which he is hard put 
to scrape together), might be provoked—and just by the 
very homeliness of Kant’s example—to exclaim that if the 
concepts of philosophers allow no difference between a hun¬ 
dred real dollars and a hundred merely possible dollars, 
then so much the worse for the concepts of philosophers! A 
human retort which would also seem to be not without its 
own philosophic depth. 

Kant’s contention, however, is readily understandable in 
terms of his general doctrine in the Critique as to what is 
required of a really legitimate concept Such a concept 
must be capable of being represented according to some 
schema of the imagination: the concept (if it is not to be 
empty) must bind together a series of mental images, thus 
ultimately of sensory data which are the sources of those 
images. In his doctrine of the schemata Kant was systema¬ 
tizing the view of the nature of the concept which had 
appeared in British Empiricism with Berkeley's famous ob¬ 
jection to “abstract ideas” and from there had passed down 
to Kant through Hume. The concept here is, ultimately, 
a mental picture of a sensory datum—either directly or 


through a logical chain of concepts constructed from other 
concepts which are such mental pictures. In this sense, 
surely, we have to agree with Kant that we can have no 
mental picture of the existence of a thing. In forming the 
concept of a table, I can represent to myself its color, size, 
shape, etc., but not its existence. All of these—color, size, 
shape, etc.—are what philosophers nowadays call observa¬ 
ble properties; and the existence of the table is not one of 
these properties. To be sure, if there were not actually ex¬ 
isting tables, we would not be able to sense these observa¬ 
ble properties, and from there proceed to form a mental 
picture of a table that is indifferently an actual or a pos¬ 
sible table. However, this fact is allowed to lurk like an 
unmentioned and unpleasant ghost in the background of 
the whole Kantian discussion, turning up some very pretty 
puzzles elsewhere in the Critique , and eventually landing 
him in that impasse—the scandal of philosophy, as he him¬ 
self calls it—of being unable to provide any proof of the 
reality of the external world. 

Thus Kant's position that existence is not a predicate be¬ 
longs to the more explicitly empiricist side of his philosophy, 
a very considerable side too of Kantianism in which it has 
shaped later Positivism and Pragmatism much more than 
Positivists and Pragmatists sometimes seem to remember. 
His target here, moreover, is perfectly clear—and in philo¬ 
sophical disputes it is imperative for the philosopher to 
know what he is really after if the dispute is not to lose 
itself in the bewildering detail of perfectly pointless dialec¬ 
tic: Kant wants to get rid of existence as a predicate in 
order to demolish the arguments for the existence of God. 
Later Empiricists and analysts who have followed him in 
this point have been concerned with a similar, but more 
general, aim: that of undermining metaphysics altogether; 
for if existence is an empty concept, then metaphysicians 
who have talked about it have been talking nonsense. Of 
course, philosophers have talked a great deal of nonsense 
about existence, and to expose this nonsense is a laudable 
aim. But one need not therefore go to the extreme of taking 
one's revenge on ordinary language and the plain man by 



casting out the word “exists” from his permissible vo¬ 

More than this; the Kantian position might be accepted, 
but then put to a very different use from that of the Em¬ 
piricists. And this is exactly what takes place with Kierke¬ 
gaard, who agrees with Kant that existence is not a con¬ 
cept (or predicate) but from a diametrically opposite point 
of view from that of the Empiricists. For the Positivist, ex¬ 
istence is not a concept because it is too empty, thin, and 
therefore ultimately meaningless; for Kierkegaard* my ex¬ 
istence is not a concept because it is too dense, rich, and 
concrete to be represented adequately in any mental pic¬ 
ture. My existence is not a mental representation but a fact 
in which I am plunged up to the ears, and indeed over 
the head. In that great hall of mirrors—the Kant i an mind 
with all its representations—the image of my existence 
never appears adequately in any one of those conceptual 
mirrors simply because it is the enveloping presence sur¬ 
rounding all those mirrors, without which they would not 
be at all. Men—actual and not merely possible men—are re¬ 
lated to their own existence in a quite different way from 
that of the understanding seeking to secure a mental repre¬ 
sentation: in moods of joy, or of despair, they may bless 
or curse their own existence. When Hamlet in his ultimate 
anxiety puts the question “To be or not to be,” the way 
in which, in this question itself, he relates himself to his 
own existence is not at all that of the understanding to one 
of its concepts. Kierkegaard’s aim here is as perfectly defi¬ 
nite as Kant’s, though altogether different in its implications 
for philosophy: if existence cannot be a concept , then quite 
clearly it cannot be reduced to essence , nor can priority 
for essence over existence be claimed . Kierkegaard’s imme¬ 
diate target, of course, was the Hegelian attempt to reduce 
existence to essence by showing the former as one stage in 
the unfolding of the Dialectic; but his protest against es¬ 
sence in the name of existence goes quite beyond this im¬ 
mediate target, and in fact brings into question the whole 
Platonic tradition within Western philosophy that has al¬ 
ways attempted to treat existence as a copy, imitation. 


participation in, or even a fall or descent of essence. Here 
Kierkegaard points to what is really the significant issue 
behind the debate about existence’s being a predicate: 
what matters in the end is not whether we rig up our lan¬ 
guage so that “exists” is a permissible predicate or not (and 
in fact it can be rigged either way); what does matter is 
what we make of existence: whether we give it its due as 
a primal and irreducible fact, or somehow convert it into 
a shadowy stand-in for essence. 


On this point the Platonic inheritance is so subtly and 
deeply entrenched in Western thought that its presence is 
likely to be potent even where it is unconscious; a rather 
striking instance of which is provided by Bertrand Bussell 
even in a phase of his thought when he had purportedly 
thrown over his earlier Platonism. Russell sharpens the 
Kantian position considerably: the proposition “Socrates ex¬ 
ists” becomes, for him, nonsensical because in the formal 
language of his Principia Mathematica an expression of this 
form is syntactically impossible. The fact that in ordinary 
language the statement “Socrates exists” is perfectly under¬ 
standable, and indeed everybody not only understands its 
meaning but knows it to be false since 399 b.c. (when 
Socrates drank the hemlock) , is something of an obstacle, 
nevertheless, that Russell has to get around. Accordingly, 
he would permit the surrogate statement “(Ex) (x= Socra¬ 
tes),” which may be translated, “There is an individual 
whose proper name is Socrates.” Here, in the effort to 
get rid of existence as a predicate, we are left with the 
suspiciously kindred expression, “There is.” Existence, ap¬ 
parently, is a rather sticky and clinging presence. Rus¬ 
sell’s feat begins to look a little bit like that old comic 
routine of the comedian who tries frantically to throw off 
a piece of flypaper from his right hand, fails, then sits down 
and patiently peels it off with his left hand; at last, holds 
up his empty right hand while a look of childish glee 
spreads over his face; meanwhile the audience sees the 



paper sticking now to the left hand. The early Wittgenstein 
was one of the first to call attention to the fact that the 
flypaper was still there. 

Since "There is” remains in his language, Russell has to 
provide an interpretation of what it means to exist; and 
this he proceeds to do with great boldness, dispatch—and 
simple-mindedness. Eliminating the details of symbolism, 
we can boil it down to this: To exist is to satisfy a propo¬ 
sitional function, where "satisfy” has the same meaning as 
when we say in mathematics that the roots of an equation 
exist—i.e., satisfy the equation. And this is not proposed as 
a mere illustrative model; on the contrary, Russell tells us, 
"This is the fundamental meaning of ‘existence/ Other 
meanings are either derived from this, or embody mere con¬ 
fusion of thought.” Did Bertrand Russell, the man, ever be¬ 
lieve that he existed in the same sense in which the root of 
an equation exists? I hardly think so; but the fact that 
probably the most widely known philosopher of our time 
can advance this view (and get away with it in philosophic 
circles) would seem to indicate how far into the Kingdom 
of Laputa the age itself, at any rate its analytic philoso¬ 
phers, have insensibly slipped. 

Russell’s language here is altered from Plato, but the line 
of thought is exactly the same. To exist, Plato said, is to 
be a copy or likeness of the Idea, or essence. Particular 
things exist to the degree that they fulfill, or satisfy , the 
archetypal pattern of the Idea. To exist, says Russell, is to 
satisfy a propositional function, just as a certain number 
may satisfy a given equation. In both cases existence is un¬ 
derstood as derivative from essence. Existents exist in virtue 
of essence. 

Wittgenstein, following Russell, was at once bolder and 
more stringent in his thinking when he protested that the 
language of Russell’s Principia Mathematica did not prop¬ 
erly get existence out of logic. Not only does this language 
permit unrestricted existential operators, but in it the prop¬ 
osition "(Ex) (x=x)”—"There is an individual identical 
with itself”—is an analytic truth. Wittgenstein felt that logic 
should not even be able to make a statement like this—let 


alone its being an analytic truth. Speaking as the purist of 
logic, for whom logic, pure logic, must have nothing to do 
with existence and the real world, Wittgenstein was un¬ 
doubtedly justified in this contention. But he was then 
forced to desperate measures to get the “There is” out of 
logic. If one had a world where all the atomic facts were 
properly itemized, so he contended, one could simply say 
“a is P” or “b is P” or “c is P,” etc., etc. (where a, b, and 
c are proper names, and P is an observable property), with¬ 
out having to stoop to saying “There is an x that is P,” 
which is only a vague and indefinite makeshift for one or 
the other definite statement. Unfortunately—though per¬ 
haps fortunately for us as existing humans—a world of such 
clear-cut atomic facts, where each individual entity is 
neatly itemized under its proper name, is but the dream of 
the logician, with no resemblance to the real world in which 
we do exist. (Even in mathematics there are compelling 
reasons why Wittgenstein’s proposal could not be adopted.) 
These early proposals of Wittgenstein have by this time 
pretty well gone by the boards among analytic philoso¬ 
phers; but the fact that he was forced to such extreme 
measures to conjure “There is” out of logic serves to suggest 
again what we have seen in the case of Russell: that ex¬ 
istence is indeed a sticky thing, from which even the pure 
logician finds it difficult to disentangle himself. 

2 . 

At this point we have to compound Slant’s original diffi¬ 
culty, or rather push it to its root, by turning from the 
“There is” to the simple copula “is,” and by asking whether 
this simple verb itself, merely as copula, does not have some 
existential import. Kant would have the expression “S is” 
be nonsense, but would find “S is P” acceptable. But what 
if the “is” in “S is P” were more than a mere sign of the 
joining of predicate to subject, but also signified existence 
in some way or other? This aspect of the problem Kant 
did not at all develop. Modem mathematical logic dis¬ 
penses with the “is” of predication, usually employing 



parentheses for the job—thus “a is P” becomes “P(a)”— 
and this latter syntactical form suggests that the “is” of 
ordinary language is no more than an auxiliary symbol with 
no more meaning than the parentheses used as the formal 
sign of predication. Still, it is not quite certain that the “is” 
of ordinary language has only this sense; and indeed if we 
consult the Oxford Dictionary, we find that it lists six senses 
of the verb “to be” before it arrives at its meaning as a 
simple copula! No doubt, for the formal logician this is 
merely a grubby and earth-bound fact of historical usage, 
and of no particular significance for philosophic under¬ 
standing; but since we happen also to be dealing here with 
the grubby and earth-bound fact of existence, we might at 
least let this fact of historical usage cut as much weight, at 
least prima facie , as the formal constructions of logicians. 

One effort to dispense with the copula occurred in the 
famous episode in earlier Positivism about protocol sen¬ 
tences (here again the original impetus came from Witt¬ 
genstein) : if instead of “This table is brown” we report 
the supposedly more basic datum “Here now a brown 
patch,” we have got rid of the copula “is .” And with an 
ample class of such protocol statements, together with the 
apparatus of formal logic, which does not employ the cop¬ 
ula “is,” we should be able to deal with the world of our 
experience without any of that metaphysical nonsense that 
in the past has attached itself to the verb “to be” and has 
made the sheer accident of its usage an occasion for 
philosophers to expatiate on the meaning of existence. So, 
at any rate, earlier Positivism proposed. 

Now, the issue is not the sacrosanct character of the verb 
“to be,” and we would be quite content to jettison it if that 
would help matters; but in appearing to jettison it we have 
to be sure that we do not make another verbal form do its 
work. And in this last respect, “Here now” is an extremely 
suspicious expression; for one could hardly find another in 
the language that more vividly signifies the immediate, 
actual, enveloping present state of affairs—existence, in 
short. Where the temporal reference is thus insisted upon 
there certainly something is said about existence. To elim- 


inate any existential reference one would have to eliminate 
the tense of the verb. Thus in the logical form “P(a)”—to 
be read, "P of a”—the assertion is temporally neutral, or 
timeless; "Brown (this table)”—"Brown of this table”—does 
not tell me when it is, was, or will be brown; whereas, 
"This table is brown” indicates that this brown table is a 
present existing fact. So, too, in languages like Russian and 
Greek the verb for "to be” can be omitted as a copula in 
the present tense; but the omission is possible because the 
tense is clearly understood; when other tenses are signified, 
the verb for "to be” has to be used. 

It might seem possible to eliminate present-past-future 
by signifying time through some numerical designation that 
would be temporally neutral. To say "at ten o’clock” is not 
to say that ten o’clock is past, present, or future. Thus the 
next step of Positivism beyond its earlier stage of protocol 
sentences was to assign predicates to space-time co-ordi¬ 
nates: instead of "Here now a a brown patch,” with its 
obvious present and existential reference, we have "Brown 
(x,y)”—"A brown patch at space-time point x,y.” A numer¬ 
ical designation of time abstracts from the tense of the 
verb. Thus we would seem to arrive at a perfectly non- 
existential language of pure nouns and adjectives without 
any verbs. 

But this proposal would work only if there were fixed 
points in an absolute Newtonian space and time that could 
be known independently of the events or actual bodies that 
are found at those space-time points. In fact, however, we 
always have to set up physical space co-ordinates in rela¬ 
tion to some existing body (the earth, sun, or what not); 
and time co-ordinates in relation to some actual event, 
which as actual was once present, or is so now, or will be. 
A language purely of nouns and adjectives would thus bor¬ 
row whatever temporal meanings it still preserves from a 
language which had genuine verbs. But a genuine verb is 
one with tenses, and therefore with an essential reference 
to time; and with time, there is an inexpugnable reference 
to existence. 



3 - 

To sum up: The question—debated by modem philoso¬ 
phers since Kant—whether existence is or is not a predicate 
conceals another and historically more momentous question 
for philosophy: the question namely of existence and es¬ 
sence, and their relation. The denial of existence as a gen¬ 
uine predicate belongs—in the case of most philosophers— 
to that impulse of the philosophic mind which loves the 
static and timeless self-identity of essence, and would con¬ 
strue existence as some kind of shadowy derivative of these 
latter. The effort to transcend the primary fact of existence 
takes, as we have seen, three forms, of which the denial of 
existence is perhaps least radical: the second is to cast out 
the existential operator, ‘There is,” from a properly logical 
language; the third, to reduce the meaning of the verb “to 
be” to a mere copula, an auxiliary symbol signifying that 
predicate and subject are somehow joined. And it has been 
this last that brought us to the hidden root of the whole 
question: the meaning of “to be.” 

The verb with its tense retains an essential reference to 
the existential. In this respect, “to be” is the verb of verbs, 
since it expresses the primary fact that makes a verb a verb 
and not some other part of speech: the pure fact of being 
present, or of having been past, or of going to be future 
—and without any accompanying secondary and observable 
action. The paradoxical fact, however, is that in one range 
of usage “to be” is precisely the verb that can lose its es¬ 
sential temporality. We say “7 is a prime number”; and it 
is nonsense to say “7 was a prime number,” or “7 will be 
a prime number.” The present tense figures here as a de¬ 
generate case of temporality. But it is just this degenerate 
case—where “is” loses all temporal sense and serves as mere 
copula—that the logician is apt to take as the primary case, 
from which all other meanings of “to be” are then to be 

That our argument has come finally to turn on the tense 
of the verb, and therefore on time and the temporal as the 
inexpugnable feature of existence, is no novelty but in fact 


returns us to the original source of this problem in history: 
returns us to Plato, for whom the derivation of existence 
from essence was the h uman project of an escape from the 
temporal into the timeless. To be sure, modem analytic 
philosophers—since they are anti-metaphysicians—have no 
Platonic realm of essences. But Platonism—as that funda¬ 
mental mode of thought which is compelled always to rate 
essence over existence—may be ejected with great show 
from the front door only to creep back invisibly by the 
rear. So long as logic is given absolute pre-eminence in 
philosophy, and the logical mind placed first in the hier¬ 
archy of h uman functions, reason seems inevitably caught 
up in the fascination of static and self-identical essence, 
and existence tends to become an elusive and shadowy 
matter, as the history of philosophy abundantly confirms. 
So far as he logicizes, man tends to forget existence. It hap¬ 
pens, however, that he must first exist in order to logicize. 


Absolute, the, 90, 155, 204, 
247, 292 

Adler, Alfred, 199, * 55 , 258, 

Aeschylus, 79, 276, 278,280 
Aesthetic attitude, Kierke¬ 
gaard’s treatment of, 163-65 
Anna Karenina, 141, 142 
Anxiety 2 in Heidegger’s philos¬ 
ophy, 221, 226; in Sartre’s 
philosophy, 246 
Aquinas, St Thomas, 26, 27, 
55, 100, ioi, 102, 106, 113, 
and Communism, 292; as ex¬ 
istentialist, 104, 107, 108; 
quoted, 212 

Aristotle, 50, 55 , 77 ,80,81,82, 
86, 87, 88, 93, 95, 99, 100, 
117, 118, 220; on Being, 
286-87; quoted, 89 
Arnold, Matthew, 69-73 pass., 
77 , 78 , 79 

Art, Greek evaluation of, 85, 
88, 90 

Art, modem, 41, 42, 43, 45 ; 
and break with classical tra¬ 
dition, 47,56, 57 , 58 ,63-64; 
content of, 44, 59, 60; and 
existential philosophy, 63; 
flattening in, 49, 50, 56, 58; 
image of man lacking in, 615 
new forms acquired by, 
46 f.; Nothingness as theme 
in, 62, 63; primitivism in, 
132; subjectivity of, 49 
Art, Oriental, 47, 48, 54 , 55 , 
56 , 58 

Atheism: and Existentialism, 
17; and Heidegger, 209; of 
Nietzsche, 184,185, 186; of 
Russell, 185, 186; of Sartre, 
185,209, 243, 244, 262, 263 
Attack upon Christendom, The, 
172, 173, 174 

Bacon, Francis, 203 
Baudelaire, 130, 133, 255, 256 
Beckett, Samuel, 63, 183 
Being, 4, 53,90,103,107, no, 
119,130,131,185, 231; and 
Aristotle’s conception of 
First Cause, 89; Aristotle on 
meanings of, 286-87; chain 
of, in Western rationalism, 
57, 64, 91; and death, in 
Heidegger’s philosophy, 225, 
226; estrangement from, 207, 
t 208; Field Theory of, 217, 
218, 219, 221, 224; and 
Hegelian dialectic, 160; 
Heidegger on, 207, 208, 
210-13, 217-27 pass., 230- 
37 pass., 248,249,251; Kant 
quoted on, 1615 not reached 
by conceptual reason, 235 ; 
in Oriental philosophy, 231, 
234, 237; Plato’s identifica¬ 
tion of, with Ideas, 85; po¬ 
etry as means of arriving at, 
130; and Positivism, 210, 
288; preconceptual under¬ 
standing of, 213; and primi¬ 
tivism, 132 f.; and Romanti¬ 
cism, 123, 126; in Sartre s 
philosophy, 245, 246, 248, 
251. 254, 257, 258; Uadi- 
tional belief in intelligibil¬ 
ity of, 55,64; truth as open¬ 
ness toward, 143; as Will to 
Power, 199, 200 
Being and Nothingness, 246, 
249* 252, * 54 > 258 
Being and Some Philosophers, 

Being and Time, 40, 211, 225, 


Berdyaev, Nikolai, i 5 > x 36, 
173, 176, 236 
Bergson, Henri, 14,15* 
Between Man and Man, 236 



Beyond Good and Evil, zoo 
Bible, 71, 72, 76,168 
Blake, 124,125,129, igo 
Brothers Karamazov, The, 137- 

Buber, Martin, 16, 17, 73, 236 
Buddhism, 247, 285 

Camus, Albert, 8 
Capitalism, 27, 28, 29, 33 
Carnap, 288,289 
Catholic Church, moral theol¬ 
ogy of, 168 
C&zanne, 48, 56, 57 
Christianity, 13,110,118,129, 
138, 1835 Aristotle assimi¬ 
lated by, 89; faith as basis 
of, 92 ff.; and Kierkegaard, 
150, 151, 152, 160, 172-77 
pass., 207. See also Catholic 
Church; Protestantism 
Civilization and Its Discon¬ 
tents, 178 

Coleridge, 124, 125, 126, 128, 
130; and Existentialism, 127 
Communism, 273, 292; advent 
of, in Russia, 134; appeal of, 
to underdeveloped countries, 
202; and Heget 238; Sartre's 
relations with, 262. See also 

Complementarity, Principle of, 

Concept of Dread, The, 29,226 
Concluding Unscientific Post¬ 
script, 156 

Confessions, St Augustine's, 
95, 96, 97, 101 

Consciousness! in Cartesian- 
ism, 243, 248; in Sartre's 
philosophy, 245, 248 
Copula "is, 302 
Crime and Punishment, 137 
Critique of Pure Reason, 295, 

Cubism, 48,49,50,57 
Culture and Anarchy, 69 

Dadaists, 46 
Damiani, Peter, 99, 118 
Dante, 25,27,56,111,253 
Dasein, 218,220,221,237 
De Came Christi, 94 
Death: Heidegger's analysis of, 
225, 226; question of, as 
central to religion, 176; Tol¬ 
stoy quoted on, 145 
Death of Ivan Ilyich, The, 136, 


Dejection: An Ode, 127 

Descartes, 106, 114, 203, 216, 

Despair, studied by Kierke¬ 
gaard, 169 

Detachment, as Greek ideal, 
76, 77 

Dewey, John, 7,19-20 
Dialectic, Hegelian, 160,298 
Dionysus, 178, 179, 183, 184, 

Divine Comedy, 25,56,111 
Doctor Faustus, 129 
Dominicans, 105,106 
Dostoevski, 15, 135-41 pass., 
174 , 175,193,194,199,244 
Doubt, of Descartes, 242-43 
Dread, analyzed by Kierke¬ 
gaard, 127 

Dubuffet, quoted, 57-58 

Ecce Homo, 181,183,185,196 
Eckhart, Meister, 14 
Eliot, T. S., 50,124,175 
Empiricism, British, 18, 296 
Enlightenment, 22, 26, 27, 33, 

84,118, 134, 135,139,186, 
227,272-76 pass., 279 
Epicureanism, 163 
Essence: and Cartesian God, 
244; in Greek philosophy, 
76, 77, 85, 103 1; and rela¬ 
tion to existence, 102-10 
pass., 298,300,305 



Essentialism, 104 
Ethics, Aristotle’s, 100, 113, 

Ethics: Kierkegaard’s treat¬ 
ment of, 165-67; and Nietz¬ 
sche, 191 
Eumenides, 277 
Existence, and relation to es¬ 
sence, 1021-10 pass., 298, 
300, 305 

Existentialism, 4, 110, 133, 
vs. abstraction, 18, 19, 269; 
American cariosity about, 8; 
and American optimism, 
10 fof Aquinas, St. Thomas, 
104, 106, 107, 108; Being 
and Time as Bible of, 211; 
Bergson’s relation to, 15; and 
Coleridge, 127; and Dosto¬ 
evski, 140; European origins 
of, 11 ff., 20; existence put 
before essence, 102, 104, 
248; French, 7-11 pass., 14, 
101, 238, 239-635 German 
sources of, 11, 14; and 
Hebraism, 78; and James, 
William, 18-19; meaning of, 
2268; news of, after Second 
World War, 7U vs. over¬ 
simplified pictures of m an , 
22; of Pascal, 111; as philos¬ 
ophy of atomic age, 65; and 
Plato, 80, 86; and Pragma¬ 
tism, 19; reaction to, by pro¬ 
fessional philosophers, 9,10; 
and religion, 17-18; Rug- 
gieri’s description of, 216; 
Russian, White, 15-16; of St 
Augustine, 95; Spanish con¬ 
tributions to, 16; tensions 
expressed by, 26; of Tertul- 
94; themes of, 36; of 
Tolstoy, 141. See also Hei¬ 
degger; Kierkegaard; Nietz¬ 
sche; Sartre 

Facticity, 109 

Faith, and reason, 92-101,111 
Farewell to Arms, A, 44 
Faulkner, 50, 52, 53, 56, 269 
Faust, 128 f., 130,189, 190 
Fear and Trembling, 151,153, 

Finitude, 290; in Heidegger's 
philosophy, 226, 227, 238, 

Flies, The, 252 
Forster, E. M., 54 ,55 
Freud, 138,178,199, * 55 , *94 
Furies, 276-79 pass. 

Genealogy of Morals, 191 
Gilson, Etienne, 106,107 
God: attributes of, 105; death 
of, 182, 185, 186, 203, 209, 
237, 238, 244; as First 
Cause, 89; as highest object 
of knowledge, 90; proofs of 
existence unsatisfactory to 
Pascal, 116-17; reality of, 
concreteness of, 186 
Godel, 38, 39,40 
Goethe, 127-30 pass., 189,190 
Gorky, Maxim, 144 ,145 
Greek philosophy, 5* 71* 72, 
76, 77* 79-91 pass., 230, 
231,234. See also Hellenism 
Gullivers Travels, 120-23 pass, 

Hebraism, 70-73 pass., 76-79 
pass., 110 

Hegel, 39* 62, 96, 97, 158-61 
pass., 227, 238, 246, 247, 
273, 291, 292 

Heidegger, Martin, 11, 12, 17, 
40, 53 * 63, 107, no, 115 * 
117,125,136,141* 143 ,172* 
205; as academic philos¬ 
opher, 207; oa anxiety, 221, 
226; on Being, 207, 208, 
210-13, 217-27 pass., 230- 
37 pass., 248, 249, 251; on 
conscience, 252; and criti- 



cism of Heideggerian man, 
236; and Das Nichts, 288; 
and Daseln, 218, 220, 221, 
237; on death, 225,226; and 
death of God, 209,237,2385 
etymological studies by, 214, 
215, 216; existentialia of, 
220-24; on finitude of exist¬ 
ence, 226,227, 238, 275; on 
history, 229, 230, 238; vs. 
Kierkegaard, 237, 238; on 
Nietzsche, 197, 207, 209, 
232, 2335 and “the One,” 
219-20, 225; peasant stock 
of, 208; and phenomenol¬ 
ogy, 213, 314 , 215; quoted, 
206, 209; and Sartre, 238, 
242, 246-49 pass.; and time, 
theory of, 227-28; on truth, 
meaning of, 230,231 
Heisenberg, 38, 40 
Hellenism, 70,72,77,79 
Hemingway, Ernest, 46, 269, 
284, 285, 286; quoted, 44- 
45, 62, 283 
Heraclitus, 81 
Holderin, 125, 209, 237 
Hubris , 40, 279 
Humanism, 60; in European 
universities, 6; Marxist, 273; 
of Sartre, 249-50 
Hume, David, 18, 217, 219, 

Husserl, Edmund, 11, 12, 41, 
108, 213, 214, 216, 285 

I and Thou, 16 

Idealism: German, 14, 127; 
objective, 291; Platonic, 
84 ff., 94, 103 f., 191, 200, 
204, 300 
Idiot , The, 140 
Immoralist, 178 
Immortality, 77, 94, 135, 176 
Impressionists, 48 
Incarnation of Jesus, 93, 94 

Indeterminacy, Principle of, 

Instant, The, 172 
Intuition: in Bergson’s philos¬ 
ophy, 14f.; Pascals view of, 
114, ii 5 

James, Henry, quoted, 33 
James, William, 18,19 
Jaspers, Karl, 11, 12, 32, 33, 
Jesuits, 105, 106, 292 
Job, Book of, 71, 73, 74, 75, 

Journalism, as threat to public 
mind, 32 

Journals, Kierkegaard’s, 154 
Joyce, James, 42, 50, 51, 52, 

Joyful Wisdom, The, 185, 209 
Jung, C. G., 59, 124, 156, 294 

Kafka, Franz, 61 
Kant, 26, 37, 38, 98, 115, 161, 
162, 226, 249, 267, 29s 
296, 297, 298, 301 
Kierkegaard, Soren, 3, 12, 13, 
16, 17, 19, 77, 93, 94, 95, 
203; abstractions condemned 
by, 270; on aesthetic atti¬ 
tude, 163-65; appearance of, 
152, 153; on appropriation 
of truth, 171; as arttet, 250; 
as bombshell in philosophy, 
207; break with Regina Ol¬ 
sen, 153,154,155,166; and 
Christianity, views on, 150, 
151, 152,160,172-77 pass., 
207; and Communism, 292; 
despair studied by, 169; 
dread analyzed by, 127,226; 
and Either/Or choice, 154, 
162; on ethics, 165-67; 
Hegel opposed by, 39 , 97 , 
154, 158, 160, 161, 298; vs. 
Heidegger, 237, 238; intelli- 

INDEX 311 

gence of, 149, 150, 152; 273, 292. See also Comma- 

irony of, 152, 156, 157; 
melancholy of, 155, 156; 
Platonic scale of values re¬ 
versed by, 85; prophesy on 
role of journalism, 315 psy¬ 
choanalytic critics of, 1535 
as reckoning point of Ref¬ 
ormation, 29; on religion, 
166-76 pass., 207; on Soc¬ 
rates, 86, 157, 158 

Lao-tse, 81, 84, 234 
Laplace, 38 

Laputa ( GuUive/s Travels ), 
120-23 pass., 146 
Lawrence, D. H., 132,178 
Laws, The, 87 
Leibniz, 96,106,203,217 
Letter on Humanism, 208 
Literature: modem, 50-54 
pass., 59, 62; and Sartre, 


Logic: and eleventh-century 
dialecticians, 99; as Greek 
invention, 78; Hegel's use 
of, 159 f.; and Wittgenstein, 
300, 301 

Logical Positivism, 6 , 21, 22, 
159,162,210,288,295, *97, 
302, 303 

Lonely Crowd, The, 173 
Lucretius, 163 

Luther, Martin, 27, 28, 121, 
154 , 183 

Malraux, Andr6, 46, 60, 233, 

Man in the Modem Age, 32 
Manet, 43 

Marcel, Gabriel, 14, 173, 176, 

Maritain, Jacques, 101 
Marlowe, 129 

Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 
The, 124 

Marxism, 21-22, 33, 34, 138, 


Materialism, 34, 291 

Mathematics: bias toward es- 
sentialism, 106; during cen¬ 
tury of Enlightenment, 118; 
incompleteness of, 39-40, 
293; Laputans' devotion to, 
120-21; Plato attracted to, 

Matisse, 43 

Memoirs from the House of the 
Dead, 136, 137 

Metaphysical Journal, Marcel's, 

Metaphysics, Aristotle's, 286, 

Meyerson, Emile, 159 

Mood, in Heideggers philos¬ 
ophy, 220-21, 223 

My Confession, by Tolstoy, 
145, 146 

Nausea, 241, 251, 253, 254* 

New Class, The, 273 

Nicomdchean Ethics, 88 

Nietzsche, Friedrich, 12, 13, 
16, 24, 72, 85, 91, 95, 113, 
124, 129, 133, 150; as artist, 
250; atheism of, 184, 185, 
186; as bombshell in philos¬ 
ophy, 207; and Christ, 183; 
as classical scholar, 177,198; 
on death of God, 182, 185, 
186, 203, 209, 238, 244; de¬ 
lusions of, 181-82; and 
Dionysus, 178, 179, 183, 
184, 186; and Eternal Re¬ 
turn, 194-95, 196; and Hei¬ 
degger, 197, 207, 209, 232, 
233, 237; immoralism of, 
190 ff.; loneliness of, 180, 

182, 188; madness of, 182, 

183, 184, 196; on man's es¬ 
trangement from himself, 
207; on necessity of Church, 

175; and nihilism, 203, 204, 
205; as philology professor, 
1775 quoted, 125, 166, 188, 
195 ; and Sartre, 247, 248; 
sickness of, 177, 178, 184; 
and Superman, 128, 137, 
166, 192, 194, 196; as sys¬ 
tematic thinker, 197, 200; 
and Will to Power, 197-205 
pass., 232, 233, 249; and 
Zarathustra, 187 ff., 193, 
194 , 195 

Nihilism, 203, 204, 205, 238, 
No Exit, 252 ,253 
Notes from Underground, 138, 

Nothingness, 65, 185; encoun¬ 
ter with, 29; in Heidegger s 
philosophy, 226, 238; in 
Oriental philosophy, 285; 
Pascal's experience of, 116, 
117; in Sartre's philosophy, 
243, 244, 247; as theme in 
modem art and literature, 
62,63; threat of, 36,62 

Objective truth, 170, 171, 172 
Olsen, Regina, 153, 134, 153, 

On Being and Essence, 108 
On the Nature of Truth, 230 
Oresteia, 276 

Organization Man, The, 173 
Original Sin, 28, 226 
Ortega y Gasset, Jos6, 16,102, 
173 ,271 

Parmenides, 81, 87, 116, 159 
Pascal, 29, 112, 152; as exis¬ 
tentialist, 111; mathematical 
and intuitive minds differen¬ 
tiated by, 114-15; and Noth¬ 
ingness, 116,117; on philos¬ 
ophy, 113; quoted, 118; 
religious experience of, 116; 
as scientific genius, 113 

Passage to India, A, 54 
Pauli, Von, 38 
Peirce, Charles Sanders, 19 
PensSes, Pascal's, 116 
Phaedrus, 82, 86 
Phenomenology, 213,214, 215 
Philosophy: ancient, 5, 6; An¬ 
glo-American, and reaction 
to Existentialism, 9f., 21; 
beginning of Western, 4; 
Being as central concept of, 
210; and dualism of subject 
and object, 249; existentialist 
trend of, 18; modem, posi¬ 
tion of, 3 ff., 6, 7; Oriental, 
5 > 55 - 56 ,231,234,237; Pas¬ 
cal’s view of, 113; and philo¬ 
sophical anthropology, 11, 
236; as profession, 4, 5, 6; 
professional deformation in, 
5 » 9 > 159; Scholastic (medie¬ 
val), 26, 27, 105, 106, 117; 
specialization of, 6, 7; tech¬ 
nique in, preoccupation 
with, 6 
Picasso, 42 

Plato, 5, 39, 72, 76,77,79, 81, 
68, 95, 96, 305; as aesthete, 
164; and doctrine of Ideas, 
84* 85, 94, 103 f., 191, 200, 
204, 300; existential aspect 
of, 80, 86; Homer con¬ 
demned by, 286; on meaning 
of truth, 230; rationalism of, 
82-86 pass.; and Socrates in 
later dialogues, 87 
Plato*s Theory of Truth, 230 
Plotinus, 96 
Poetics, Aristotle's, 50 
Poetry: and Rimbaud, 131, 
132; as substitute for reli¬ 
gion, 130 

Positivism, 6, 21, 22,159, 162, 
210, 288, 295, 297, 302, 303 
Possessed, The, 138 
Pragmatism, 18, 19, 162, 297 
Present Age, The, 173 

INDEX 313 

Primitivism, in modem art, 132 
Professional deformation, 4-5, 

Progress, idea of, 118, 138 
Protestantism, 27, 28, 29, 33 > 
75 , 175 

Psalms, of Bible, 71,74,75 
Psychoanalysis, 138, 294; ex¬ 
istential, 254-55, 256; and 
sickness of spirit, 170 
Pythagoreanism, 39, 84 

Rationalism, 268, 269, 274, 
279; and Great Chain of Be¬ 
ing, 64, 91; Greek, 79-91 
pass., 110; Hegelian, 159 f.; 
of Middle Ages, 26, 27, 98; 
and theodicy, 97 
Reformation, Protestant, 28, 
^ 9 , 76 

Religion: and death, as central 
issue, 176; decline of, 24- 
29, 35; and Existentialism, 
17-18; Hebraic source of, 
72; and James, William, 19; 
Kierkegaard's views on, 166- 
77 pass., 207; Orphic, 72; 
and Pascal, 113, 116; poetry 
as substitute for, 130. See 
also Catholic Church; Chris¬ 
tianity; God; Protestantism 
Reminiscences of Tolstoy, 144- 

Renaissance, 25,33,36,43,46, 
47 , 49,61 

Republic, Plato's, 83 f., 230 
Republic of Silence, The, 239 
Resurrection of Jesus, 93,94 
Revolt of the Masses, The, 16 
Richards, I. A., 223 
Rimbaud, 131,132, 133, 241 
Roads to Liberty, The, 252, 

Romanticism, 123, 125-33 

pass., 143, 146, 193 
Russell, Bertrand, 185, 186, 

St. Augustine, 95, 96, 97, 101, 

St Paul, 28, 92, 93, 94, 100, 

Sartre, Jean-Paul, 8, 9, 17, 53, 
62, 102, 107, 117, 236, 238; 
on anxiety, 246; atheism of, 
and Baudelaire, 255-56; on 
Being, 245, 246, 248, 251, 
254, 257, 258; brilliance of, 
246; and Communism, 262; 
and Descartes, 242, 243, 
256; and Evil as real, 247, 
273; on factidty, 109; and 
freedom, view of, 241-44 
pass., 247,258-63 pass.; and 
Heidegger, 238, 242, 246- 
49 pass.; as literary man, 
250-54; morbid side of, 10, 
112; and Nietzsche, 247, 
248; on Nothingness, 243, 
244, 247; and the Other, 
256, 257; and psychology, 
existential, 254-61; quoted, 
239-40; on sexual love, 257- 
58; sources of, 11 
Scheler, Max, 12,64 
Schiller, 189, 193 
Science: behavioral, man in¬ 
terpreted in terms of, 292- 
93; discovery of, by Greeks, 
72; and human finitude, 
37 ff.; and Logical Positiv¬ 
ism, 21; paradoxes of, 37- 
40; and Protestantism, 27, 
28; specialization of, 6 
Scotus, Duns, 100, 101, 102, 
104, 105, 118, 244 
Second Sex, The, 260 
Semantics, 6, 223 
Shestov, Leon, 15, 136 
Sickness Unto Death, The, 29, 

Sin, sense of, 71, 78 



Socrates, 4, 5, 71, 80, 86, 87, 
Solovev, Vladimir, 15 
Sophist, The, 86* 87, 286 
Sophocles, 79 

Sound and the Fury, The, 50, 
53 , 56 

Speech, in Heidegger's philos¬ 
ophy, 222-24 

Spinoza, 106, 114, 145, 164, 

Spleen, by Baudelaire* 130 
State, and collectivization, 30 
State and Revolution, 274 
Stendhal, 199 
Suarez, Francis, 105 
Subjective truth, 170,171,172 
Summa Theologica, 100, 113 
Superman, Nietzschean, 128, 
137, 166, 192, 194, 196 
Swift, Dean, 120-23 pass. 
Symbolism, 130, 133, 146 

Taoism, 60, 234, 285 
Technology, 201,202,269,275 
Tertullian, 94, 95, 98, 118 
Theodicy, 96,97,290 
Theologians: eleventh-century, 
vs. dialecticians, 99; present- 
day Protestant, 175 
Thus Spake Zarathustra, 181, 
184,186-89 pa*; 193, 194, 
195 , 201, 237 
Timaeus, 80, 96 
Time: Faulkner’s description 
of, 53 h; in Heidegger's 
philosophy, 227-28 
Tolstoy, 133, 135, 136, 141- 
44 pass., 146, 225; existen¬ 
tialism of, 141; quoted, 141- 
42, 144, 145 

Tragedy, Greek, 72, 178, 277- 
78, 280 

Tragic Sense of Life, 16 
Training in Christianity, 152 
Treatise on the Passions, 291 

Ulysses, 50, 51, 52, 59 
Unamuno, de, Miguel, 16, 17, 
94, 107, 178 ,194 
Understanding, in Heidegger's 
philosophy, 221-22, 223, 

Varieties of Religious Experi¬ 
ence, 19 

Voices of Silence, The, 60,233 
Voltaire, 97 
Voluntarism, 100, 101 

Waiting for Godot, 63, 183 
War and Peace, 142 
Waste Land, The, 50 
Weber, Max, 30 
Werther, 128 
Weyl, Hermann, 40 
What Is Art?, 133 
What Is Literature?, 240, 250 
Whitehead, A. N., 18, 26, 79, 

Will to Power, The, 190, 197, 

Winner Take Nothing, 283 
Wittgenstein, 300, 301, 302 
Wordsworth, 124-27 pass., 
130, 131, 143; quoted, 125, 

Works of Love, 152 

Yang and Yin, 83 

Zarathustra, 181, 184, 186-89 
pass., 193, 194, 195, 201, 
23 7 

A xtss'O